I saw a mention that an upcoming Netflix limited series, “The Fall of the House of Usher” which is based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, lost its lead actor, Frank Langella, when he was fired following a misconduct investigation. The item got me thinking about Mr. Poe.
Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” caused quite a stir in the literary world when it appeared in 1841. Because of it and some subsequent stories, Poe is credited with inventing the modern detective story. There had been mysteries and crime stories written before that with clever people and police but the modern detective tale is from Poe.
His story is about a case of a gruesome double murder in a home along the fictional Paris street Rue Morgue. Witnesses’ stories don’t match and each clue seems to undo the previous ones. The police are baffled. Enter Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin.
Dupin solves the mystery not by going over the ground as the police would do or interviewing witnesses or looking for blood or physical clues. He solves it from his home by reading the details in the newspaper. He is an “armchair detective.” His key clue in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” are just two words allegedly spoken during the crime – “mon Dieu!”
Poe only used Dupin in two more stories, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” and “The Purloined Letter.” If Dupin’s method sounds like Sherlock Holmes, that makes sense.
Arthur Conan Doyle would later write about how he was influenced by Poe. In reference to Poe’s detective stories, he said that “Each is a root from which a whole literature has developed… Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”
Dupin narrates his cases to his good friend in the same way that Dr. Watson is the recorder of Holmes’ cases. (Dupin’s chronicler is an anonymous first-person narrator while Watson actually becomes involved directly in the cases.) Watson actually says when he first encounters Holmes’s methods of deduction ’‘You remind me of Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.” (“A Study in Scarlet,” 1887)
Holmes actually seems a bit insulted by the reference. “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin. Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.” Of course, that is Holmes’ and not Doyle’s opinion.
Both detectives are very methodical in their discoveries and use rational means. The stories become puzzles for both detectives and for readers. The game is afoot.
Poe called Dupin’s process “ratiocination.” Poe wrote in a letter “These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious—but people think them more ingenious than they are—on account of their method and air of method.”
There are a number of parts of Poe’s own life story that are mysteries. I haven’t read a very complete account of his one year at the University of Virginia other than he was a boozing and gambling freshman who clearly was not much interested in academics. But the biggest mystery of his life is the very odd circumstances of his death. There are multiple theories – none definitive.
On October 3, 1849, Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore. He was delirious and rambling. He was wearing someone else’s clothes. The attending physician John Moran described his clothing as “a stained, faded, old bombazine coat, pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of worn-out shoes run down at the heels, and an old straw hat.” Taken to a hospital, he slipped in and out of consciousness and was never coherent enough to tell what had happened to him. He died on October 7.
At first, it was assumed he had either drunk himself to death or it was drugs or a combination of the two things that brought him down. A more modern theory is that he was a victim of cooping.
Cooping was a 19th-century method of voter fraud. Gangs would kidnap unsuspecting victims and through beatings, booze or drugs would force them to vote for a specific candidate. This would be done multiple times under multiple disguised identities.
A very new and less likely but entertaining theory is suggested in the film The Raven. In this fiction, there is a serial killer targeting Poe by reenacting some of his stories.
As with Stephen King today, some people assumed that the mind that created Poe’s strange stories must have been equally strange. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is about the end of a family tormented by their own tragic legacy. The delusional murderer in “The Tell-Tale Heart” will betray himself with his madness. And the worlds in the stories such as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Cask of Amontillado” are full of fear and hate. Poe’s image to many people is of a madman.
Doyle took Poe’s new genre much further than Poe. Perhaps, if Poe had continued writing Dupin stories he would have had a hit series and have been more financially secure. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published in Graham’s Magazine where he worked as an editor. They paid him $56 for it, which was a big bump from the $9 he was paid for his poem “The Raven.”