Despite Dupin’s success in arriving at the proper solutions, however, the case of the Rue Morgue reveals the shortcomings of the inductive method. Many critics have pointed out the lack of certainty associated with its conclusions, insisting that the confidence displayed by Dupin is actually a mask of deception: “[Dupin] generally manages to lend to his conclusions a much greater aura of certainty and definitiveness than they deserve, and for the most part manages to disguise from his audience the problematic aspects of the inductive methods he employs” (Nygaard 237).
One flaw in Dupin’s method is his habit of dismissing alternate possibilities. For example, “he is... much too quick to dismiss money as a conceivable motive for the crime,” choosing instead to explain the victims’ withdrawal of a large sum of gold just prior to their deaths as “mere coincidence” (Nygaard 239). There are other instances in which Dupin’s seemingly indisputable results seem to have alternative explanations - such as the passage in which he admits that the sailor is just as agile as the ourang-outang, and therefore just as capable of climbing the lighting rod and entering the scene of the crime; or the narrator’s observation that the sailor carried a heavy wooden club that could easily have been used as a murder instrument, providing an alternative to the ourang-outang’s animalistic strength (Nygaard 240). Ultimately, Dupin’s solution is correct, but the impenetrability of his chain of reasoning is suspect. The possibility still remains that Dupin was wrong. A reconstruction of any sort, in which the investigator is separated from the crime by any space of time, is subject to the possibility of error at every step - and in the case of the Rue Morgue murders, we must also allow for the possibility that “the reconstruction is less than fully accurate,” and that there has been “that slippage or break between the past and contemporary attempts to reproduce it” (Nygaard 248).
Literary analysis of “Murders in rue Morgue”
“We are invited to discover the combination of gears which causes the witches to
fly and the ghost to appear, and to admire the ingenuity of their creator, Edgar Allan Poe.”
Susan F. Beegel
Edgar Allan Poe’s account of Dupin’s first case is an explicit illustration of art imitating the artist. Poe’s fascination with re-creation and re-construction drives the plot of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” providing the scientific basis for Dupin’s struggle against the unknown. Indeed, the detective’s inductive tendencies can be interpreted as a direct transplantation of the author’s obsessively precise methodology. Poe’s essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” along with his three Dupin short stories, “seem to have sprung from a similar authorial impulse: the desire to demystify the process of composition” (Beegel 1). For Poe, “the backstage world” holds an immense amount of appeal - it has “a colorful fascination of its own, one which rivals the finished production in interest” (Beegel 2). In a similar manner, the inner workings of criminal thought and cunning induction are as fascinating as the bare facts of the case, if not more so. “The Dupin mysteries, which uncover spectacular and puzzling criminal machinations, have the special appeal to curiosity and reverence characteristic of a visit behind-the-scenes” (Beegel 2).
Even the structure of the story itself takes advantage of the subject matter. Poe’s unique brand of narration “seems purposely crafted for the fictional illustration of the author’s literary theories. The tale of detection is an inverted short story, not only written backwards... but presented backwards as well” (Beegel 2). Since the actual murders take place early in the chronological unfolding of the tale, the majority of the subsequent action is devoted to piecing together the circumstances and events leading up to the beginning of the story. “The Dupin mysteries, unlike conventional short stories, commence rather than conclude with a climatic event” (Beegel 2), and “the whole method of the narrative tends to be close to that of induction” (Nygaard 231). This model has since become the standard for detective literature, influencing the works of all of Poe’s successors, from Arthur Conan Doyle to John Grisham.
Poe’s detective stories have been described as “ratiocinative tales” - a fitting name, considering the emphasis placed on methodical reasoning and logic by Dupin. In tales such as these, the primary concern of the plot is “ascertaining truth,” and the usual means of obtaining the truth is “through a complex and mysterious process combining intuitive logic, astute observation and perspicacious inference” (Engel 83). Oddly enough, the implication here is that the crime itself is secondary to the efforts taken to solve it. In effect, the detective becomes a storyteller who must create a narrative to fit the facts:
The main interest of a detective story is not the crime itself, but the detective’s creation of a story, his unfolding of the circumstances which led to the crime, and his uncovering of the persons involved and their motives. The highly literary process of dénouement replaces action as the central drama of Poe’s tales of detection. The detective-artist, creating plot and character, giving meaning to crime-experience, is the hero of this drama. (Beegel 2)
In this manner, the detective in Poe’s story transcends the bounds of fiction and takes on the role of his creator. “In short, the protagonist of Poe’s detective tales is a portrait of the artist” (Beegel 2). Indeed, there are many similarities between Dupin and Poe: “Impoverished sons of genteel families, both combine the talents of poet and mathematician. Both require the stimulation of opium, are fond of conundrums and hieroglyphics, have an aesthete’s taste for the dark and grotesque” (Beegel 2). Here, the notion of art imitating artist is quite literal.
The development of Dupin as a character is important to the overall success of the tale, for science alone is not enough to sustain a complete narrative. Dupin is captivating not just for his unparalleled skill, but for his human idiosyncrasies as well. Like all complex characters, the character of Dupin is flawed, and riddled with contradiction. At times, he exudes an aura of moral righteousness in his honorable quest for truth, refusing to manipulate facts even for the sake of strengthening his case: “This may be the practice in law, but it is not the usage of reason. My ultimate object is only the truth” (Poe 420). And yet, his motivation for pursuing these mysterious crimes is not entirely derived from such lofty intentions. He makes it blatantly clear that he derives a certain amount of satisfaction - even pleasure - in the unraveling of a difficult case. The narrator picks up on this hedonistic element in the introduction to the story, in which he explains: “As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles” (Poe 397). Dupin clearly delights in the exercise of his mental powers - the enthusiasm with which he displays during the "mind-reading" conveys an ostentatious flair, and his motivation for investigating a pair of grisly murders is the hope that “an inquiry will afford us amusement” (412). Additionally, Dupin displays a stubborn competitive spirit - he sees the struggle to solve a mystery as a struggle against an unseen opponent, and he directs his keen observation skills are towards one goal: the discovery of on opponent's weakness. “The analyst throws himself into the spirit of this opponent, identifies himself therewith, and not unfrequently sees thus, at a glance, the sole methods (sometimes indeed absurdly simple ones) by which he may seduce into error or hurry into miscalculation” (Poe 398). Even in the end, when the case has been solved and credit has been assigned, Dupin takes a final indignant jab at his rival, the police Prefect: “I am satisfied with having defeated him in his own castle” (Poe 431).
The conflict within Dupin’s character can, to a certain extent, be extended to encompass Poe. Because of his love of “duplicity, obfuscation, and manipulation,” readers have learned that “they cannot trust Poe, that they must approach his narratives warily and with suspicion” (Nygaard 223). The danger lies in taking his narrators at face value - as we have seen with Dupin, “the self-absorbed, obsessed figures through whom he relates his tales are notoriously unreliable in their perceptions and interpretations of events” (Nygaard). Even the seemingly rational facts of Dupin’s scientific reasoning are looked upon with suspicion, for “despite the aura of cool objectivity and logical rigor that surrounds his analyses... he is still somehow having us on, trying to pull the wool over our eyes” (Nygaard 224). Some critics point to the similarity between Dupin’s name and the word “duping,” and insist that the introduction to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” contains “an implicit challenge to the reader to prove himself capable of analysis, that is, to be skeptical of superficial truths and alive to the metaphorical potential of language” (Martin 42).
One final aspect of Poe’s fiction worth noting here is the author’s use of physical enclosure as a means of heightening mood and suspense. This tool is used throughout Poe’s writing, from the crypt in “The Fall of the House of Usher” to the chamber in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” These physical enclosures are “distinctly sealed off from the rest of the setting so that what takes place in it is set apart, or ‘insulated,’ from events in the world outside” (Engel 83).
In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the enclosure is Dupin’s isolated chamber. The effect is to amplify the intensity of his mental powers, for “both literal enclosures and enclosures on the level of image and metaphor isolate and concentrate the action, intensify the mystery and thus enhance the ratiocinative process of crime solving” (Engel 83). The enclosures also delineate a sense of distance between Dupin and the rest of the society, both in terms of physical distance and his intellectual superiority. There is irony in this construction as well - for the one person most capable of banishing mystery is himself shrouded in mystery.
The famous detective of Baker Street is similar in many ways to his predecessor Dupin. Like Poe’s hero, Holmes employs the power of the scientific method in his efforts to unravel crimes. However, unlike Dupin - who was described as having a scientific mind - Conan Doyle’s detective seems to possess a greater deal of pure scientific knowledge, though much of it is obtained as an amateur. As Stamford remarks to Watson, “his studies are very desultory and eccentric, but he has amassed a lot of out-of-the-way knowledge which would astonish his professors” (Conan Doyle 7). To this extensive knowledge base, Holmes adds a genuine love for science, “a passion for definite and exact knowledge,” which Stamford finds even “a little too scientific for my tastes” (Conan Doyle 8). Some critics point out that Conan Doyle “deliberately introduced his hero in an explicitly scientific setting... in the laboratory of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital,” where he is surrounded by “retorts, test-tubes, and little Bunsen lamps” (Van Dover 40-1). Indeed, the reader’s first impression of Holmes is that of an ecstatic chemist who has just found a test for blood stains - the enthusiasm with which he expounds on this discovery, which he describes as “the most practical medico-legal discovery for years,” is both humorous and infectious. And even in this moment of personal triumph, his thought is directed towards his ultimate task - the detection of crime: “Had this test been invented, there are hundreds of men now walking the earth who would long ago have paid the penalty of their crimes” (Conan Doyle 9-10). The achievements of Holmes in the field of forensics are significant, and carry weight even outside the realm of fiction: “Indeed, modern forensic scientists often admit Holmes’s influence upon their profession” (Van Dover 42).
Many critics have pointed to Holmes’s mastery of chemistry as the most prominent element of concrete scientific discourse in the story: “It is the clearest witness to his proficiency in a hard science, and Conan Doyle carefully cultivates a sense of Holmes’s mastery here. Repeated references to the laboratory bench which Holmes maintains at 221 B Baker Street serve this end” (Van Dover 41).
With such periodic allusions to the science of the non-fictional world, the scientific nature of Holmes’s work is given a measure of credibility. As for the validity of the conclusions themselves? Holmes’s lines of reasoning, evident in statements such as these, seem to be founded on sound logic:
When a fact appears to be opposed to a long train of deductions, it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation. (Conan Doyle 62)
By the method of exclusion, I had arrived at this result, for no other hypothesis would meet the facts. (Conan Doyle 124)
There is a strong family resemblance about misdeeds, and if you have all the details of a thousand at your finger ends, it is odd if you can’t unravel the thousand and first. (Conan Doyle 19-20)
It is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery. The most commonplace crime is often the most mysterious, because it presents no new or special features from which deductions may be drawn... These strange details, far from making the case more difficult, have really had the effect of making it less so. (Conan Doyle 63)
How does Holmes come to these conclusions? His tool of choice is a combination of observation and deduction. In his magazine article entitled “The Book of Life” - the very same article that incited the skepticism of Watson - Holmes explained in detail “how much an observant man might learn by an accurate and systematic examination of all that came in his way” (Conan Doyle 18). The word “systematic” is key, for it legitimizes what skeptics like Watson consider a form of mind-reading. For an individual trained in the tasks of observation and analysis, all inferences would be “as infallible as so many propositions of Euclid” (Conan Doyle 18). Holmes calls this mode of investigation the “Science of Deduction,” and in his explanation he invokes the familiar notion of the chain of causality, made up of individual and interconnected links: “So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it” (Conan Doyle 18-9). In his observations, he is aided by nothing more than the simplest of tools, relying almost exclusively on the faculties of his mind. At the crime scene in A Study in Scarlet, he “trotted noiselessly about the room, sometimes stopping, occasionally kneeling, and once lying flat upon his face,” with nothing but “a tape measure and a large round magnifying glass” in hand (Conan Doyle 32). Yet the simplicity of his methods is deceiving, for even “Sherlock Holmes’s smallest actions were all directed towards some definite and practical end” (Conan Doyle 33). No detail is spared by his keen eye, and every detail carries a significant clue.
Observations / Deductions 1) Two deep wheel ruts were found in the mud - until the previous night, it had not rained for a week.
1) A cab must have been there the previous night. 2) The marks of the horse’s hoofs were visible, the outline of one of which was far more clearly cut than the other three.
2) The horse drawing the cab bore three old shoes, and one new one on his off fore-leg. 3) In the dirt outside the house, the tracks of two men are visible, nearly destroyed beneath the heavier tracks of the police constables.
3) The victim and the murderer arrived together during the night - one of them wore square-toed boots, the other small elegant boots. 4) The man wearing the square-toed boots had a particularly long stride.
4) The man in question was over six feet tall.
5) A peculiar type of ash was found on the floor of the crime scene.
5) One of the men smoked a Trichinopoly cigar.
6) Blood was found all over the floor, but the victim has no visible wounds.
6) The blood came from the murderer, who was a robust and ruddy-faced man. 7) A sour smell could be detected on the victim’s lips.
7) Poison was the murder weapon. 8) The German word “Rache” written on the wall did not exhibit properties characteristic of German handwriting.
8) The writer was not German, and the sign was intended to throw the police off the track. 9) A ring was found near the body of the victim.
9) Love and revenge were the motives of the murder. The murderer evidently used the ring to remind
the victim of a woman, and dropped it at the scene. In the words of Holmes himself: “I am simply applying to ordinary life a few of those precepts of observation and deduction which I advocated in that article” (Conan Doyle 35).
Holmes also recognized the value of the reverse process of analysis - induction, or backward reasoning:
Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass. There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result. (Conan Doyle 123)
Along with Dupin, Holmes is one of those rare individuals capable of constructing a chain of causality based on a final result. The process, he admits, is not intuitive: “In the every-day affairs of life it is more useful to reason forwards, and so the other comes to be neglected. There are fifty who can reason synthetically for one who can reason analytically” (Conan Doyle 122-3). However, with much practice, an individual can improve their skill to the point of being able to utter remarks such as, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive” (Conan Doyle 9).
The train of reasoning ran:
Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan. (Conan Doyle 20-1)
As Watson so earnestly remarks to Holmes, “You have brought detection as near an exact science as it ever will be brought in this world” (Conan Doyle 36).