The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries (1841-1845)   

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries were written by Edgar Allan Poe and consists of three stories: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, April 1841), “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (Snowden’s Lady’s Companion, November 1842), and “The Purloined Letter” (The Gift, 1845). Poe (1809-1849) was somewhat well-regarded in his own time, but since his early and untimely death he has become a major figure in world literature, regarded as the architect of the modern short story, the inventor of mystery fiction, a major poet and literary critic, and a writer extremely influential on the French Symbolists of the late nineteenth century, among a number of other achievements.

Because of his Dupin stories and his “The Gold Bug” (1843) Poe is also viewed as the creator of the modern mystery short story. This is not entirely accurate. There were mysteries, of a sort, before Poe, just as there were detective characters before Dupin (See: Proto-Mysteries, Detectives). Although writers had not articulated or even formed the concept of what is thought of today as mystery fiction, Gothics and other novels had the elements of mystery fiction and even focused on policemen and detectives at work solving crimes (See: The Adventures of Susan Hopley, Richmond: Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner, “The Secret Cell”) All the essential elements of the mystery story were present in fiction before Poe wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue:” the crime, the criminal, the crime solver, whether as amateur detective, professional detective, or policeman, the presentation of the evidence, the following of the crime solver as she or he unravels the plot, the exploration of the character and psyche of the criminal, and the apprehension and punishment of the criminal. Even if the phrase “detective fiction” hadn’t been formulated yet, writers before Poe were clearly aware of the idea and the elements which would constitute it. Poe’s importance lies in the elements he created and his approach to the subject matter.

Poe created the following genre conventions in the Dupin stories: the figure of the Great Detective, although Poe took this idea from the way in which Eugène François Vidocq (see: The Great Detective) presented himself in his books; the armchair detective; the slower-witted confidant of the Great Detective who narrates the stories, allowing the brilliance of the Great Detective to shine that much brighter, and who is the voice of the ordinary person, what this encyclopedia refers to as “the Watson;” the trail of false clues; the story told through newspaper clippings or other media; the tactic of misleading the reader into making incorrect assumptions about the crime or the criminal; the tactic of playing fair with the reader by presenting all the clues necessary to solve the mystery; the least likely suspect being the criminal; the notion of the secret clue or piece of evidence being hidden in the most obvious location; the locked room mystery or “impossible” crime; and the inept police force.

Poe also contributed the approach which mystery stories would duplicate for the next century: the solving of the mystery becomes the focus of the narrative. The story follows the detective as they go beyond apprehending the criminal and reveal the circumstances and mysteries around the crime. The mystery is presented as a puzzle whose solving the reader can take part in, even if only vicariously. Logic, inductive as well as deductive, is emphasized as the method by which the crime is solved. The means used in the committing of the crime—the “How” of the crime—is made as important to the story as the motives of the guilty party—the “Why” and “Who” of the crime.

The central difference between what Poe wrote and what Proto-Mystery authors wrote, and the reason that novels like Catherine Crowe’s The Adventures of Susan Hopley and Bulwer Lytton’s Night and Morning are not mysteries, is the aforementioned narrative focus. Proto-Mysteries spring from various fictional traditions, including novels of the Enlightenment, Newgate novels (see: Proto-Mysteries), and early domestic novels; therefore the goal of the Proto-Mystery story, the raison de récit, is the goal of whatever tradition or genre the Proto-Mystery author is writing within, usually the restoration of the family structure and the creation of a romantic relationship for the novel’s protagonist. The protagonist of the Proto-Mystery can detect, but her identity is not that of a detective. The Dupin stories have a practicing detective as a protagonist (rather than someone who becomes a detective in the course of the story), but also assume that the status quo of the world of the story will not be changed with the solution of the crime. Susan Hopley sets aside detection once Mr. Gaveston has been punished. Dupin continues to be a detective after the identity of the Rue Morgue murderer has been revealed. Poe read and was likely influenced by Crowe and Bulwer Lytton, among others, but his creation was different from theirs.

The Dupin stories are therefore of landmark importance to the mystery genre. But his stories, as both mysteries and fiction, are uneven. “Rue Morgue” begins with a seven-page long lecture on memory and “the analytical power”1 before introducing Dupin. The rest of the story is a mystery, and an intriguing one, but Poe lets Dupin lecture for far too long on his methods before resolving the crime. The story is also surprisingly (and unnecessarily) graphic in its description of the bodies of the murder victims. Poe thought of “Rue Morgue” as a character piece, but the actual characterization of Dupin is relatively small. “Marie Rogêt” is the worst of the three stories, combining egregious lecturing, graphic descriptions of the body of Marie Rogêt, an endless rehashing of minutiae about the murder, and interminable discussions of alternate explanations for the cause of the murder, all to prove the excellence of Dupin’s logic. Poe wrote “Marie Rogêt” as an application of his methods to the real-life murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers, a New York City cigar store clerk who disappeared in July 1841 and turned up dead in the Hudson River a few days later, and Poe’s didactic intent is clear. Most frustratingly, the story ends without any resolution; Dupin proves the method of the murder and is uninterested in actually catching the murderer. “Purloined Letter” is the most enjoyable of the three stories. Except for a brief and tedious screed on the flaws of mathematicians, the lecturing of the previous two stories is absent and is replaced with an interesting premise, good characterization, impeccable deductions, and solid execution, resulting in a readable and entertaining story.

The characterization of Dupin himself is not exceptional, despite the length of his three stories. He is one of the most colorless of the great fictional detectives. Poe did not make him as distinctive as Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (See: The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries) or Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe or any of the other Great Detectives who succeeded Dupin. Dupin’s physical appearance is never described. Undoubtedly Poe’s intent was to focus on Dupin’s personality and capabilities, but the lack of description leaves Dupin nebulous in the reader’s mind, and Poe’s descriptions of Dupin’s character do not improve this.

As Matthew Pearl writes, “Dupin must have been a genuinely strange character for Poe’s contemporaries to absorb.”2 While there were law enforcers of various sorts in the pre-Revolutionary War American colonies, “these early police services had little to do with crime control and were performed by volunteer citizens who served on slave patrols or night watches.”3 There were constables in the Plymouth Colony beginning in 1634 and night watches in Boston as early as 1636, but organized police groups did not begin until the establishment of the day patrols in Boston in 1838 and the unification of the night and day watches in New York in 1846. But, “exacerbated by political bosses who ran police departments like private fiefdoms, corruption and mismanagement rotted the system in no time at all.”4 The situation was little better at that time for the forerunners to private detectives–the first formal private detective agency was established in Paris in the 1830s by Eugène François Vidocq, but there were “private enquiry agents,” railroad detectives, and freelancing police detectives before Vidocq. However, they were widely perceived (mostly accurately) to be a corrupt and venial bunch. Dupin therefore would have seemed, as Pearl put it, “genuinely strange” in his role as an incorruptible and infallible amateur crime-solver for hire.

That strangeness has evaporated–too many Great Detectives succeeded him, to the point where there are twenty-first century novels describing the further adventures of Dupin himself. And the objective modern reader will be forced to admit that the Dupin stories are at best an uneven trio. But taken together they were and are of signal importance in the history of the mystery story.

Recommended Edition

Print: Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Stories. New York: Modern Library, 2006.



1 Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” The Best Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1924), 191.

2 Matthew Pearl, “Introduction,” in Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Stories (New York: Modern Library, 2006), x.

3 Larry K. Gaines and Victor E. Kappeler, Policing in America, eighth edition (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), 83.

4 Peter Swirski, American Crime Fiction: A Cultural History of Nobrow Literature as Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 134.

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