“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe was first published in Graham’s Magazine in April 1841. It’s considered to be the first modern detective story. Poe referred to it as one of his “tales of ratiocination.” It features C. Auguste Dupin, who also appears in “The Purloined Letter.”

Plot Summary

The story begins with an explanation of the process of ratiocination. Dupin demonstrates his abilities by deducing his companion’s (the narrator and friend of Dupin) thoughts. Dupin and the narrator then work to solve the double murder of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter at their home in the Rue Morgue, Paris. The murder baffles police because of the brutal and strange crime scene. The mother was found in the yard behind the house with broken bones and a throat cut so deeply that her head falls off when her body was moved by the police. The daughter was strangled to death and stuffed upside down into the chimney. Their fourth-floor apartment was locked from the inside and contained two bags of gold coins. Different witnesses all report hearing two voices: one that was male and French, but they all disagreed on the voice of the other, claiming that the speech and language were too unclear to decipher. Dupin offers his services to the police prefect, “G-,” and he and the narrator explore the crime scene for themselves. After an exhaustive search of the apartment, Dupin concludes that an “Ourang-Outang” or orangutan killed the two women. He places an advertisement in the local newspaper asking if anyone has lost an orangutan, and a sailor soon responds to the ad. The sailor reveals that he saw the orangutan kill the two women, and decides to sell the animal after admitting that he has had trouble controlling it. Le Bon, the man originally accused of the crime, is released from custody.

 (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)

Notes & Quotes

  • Both Dupin and the narrator exist within a very strange and gloomy atmosphere of their own creation. They remain apart from society, (coming out only at night, for example) and therefore remain largely protected from or deprived of social impressions. It is maybe because of this difference that Dupin is capable of detecting crimes and entering the minds of criminals. OR perhaps it is because Dupin enters into the minds of “others” and social aberrants, that his mind has become “diseased.” After all, Dupin is so capable of lowering his own intellect to understand another’s, he is the only one capable of reading the crime scene of an orangutan. The same could be said of the narrator, who lives with Dupin and attempts to narrate his method. The same might also be said of Poe, who enters into the minds of his “madmen” characters, and Poe’s readers who are made to do the same. Is this another example of Poe’s skepticism towards 19th century medical treatments of dis-eased minds (a la Benjamin Rush)? I think this whole section is so interesting because it makes me question Dupin as a character. When I first read the story, I thought that Dupin was meant to be an ideal figure and master of intellect, however, this section reads more like a cautionary tale, reminiscent of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
  • It was at length arranged that we should live together during my stay in the city; and as my worldly circumstances were somewhat less embarrassed than his own, I was permitted to be at the expense of renting, and furnishing in a style which suited the rather fantastic gloom of our common temper, a time-eaten and grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions into which we did not inquire, and tottering to its fall in a retired and desolate portion of the Faubourg St. Germain.Had the routine of our life at this place been known to the world, we should have been regarded as madmen- although, perhaps, as madmen of a harmless nature. Our seclusion was perfect.We admitted no visitors. Indeed the locality of our retirement had been carefully kept a secret from my own former associates; and it had been many years since Dupin had ceased to know or be known in Paris. We existed within ourselves alone.It was a freak of fancy in my friend (for what else shall I call it?) to be enamored of the Night for her own sake; and into this bizarrerie, as into all his others, I quietly fell; giving myself up to his wild whims with a perfect abandon… At the first dawn of the morning we closed all the massy shutters of our old building; lighting a couple of tapers which, strongly perfumed, threw out only the ghastliest and feeblest of rays. By the aid of these we then busied our souls in dreams- reading, writing, or conversing, until warned by the clock of the advent of the true Darkness. Then we sallied forth into the streets, arm in arm, continuing the topics of the day, or roaming far and wide until a late hour, seeking, amid the wild lights and shadows of the populous city, that infinity of mental excitement which quiet observation can afford. …His manner at these moments was frigid and abstract; his eyes were vacant in expression; who;e his voice, usually a rich tenor, rose into a treble which would have sounded petulantly but for the deliberateness and entire distinctness of the enunciation. Observing him in these moods, I often dwelt meditatively upon the old philosophy of the Bi-Part soul, and amused myself with the fancy of a double Dupin- the creative and the resolvent.Let it not be supposed, from what I have just said, that I am detailing any mystery, or penning any romance. What I have described in the Frenchman, was merely the result of an excited, or perhaps of a diseased intelligence. (241-3)

  • Another important aspect of this story is Poe’s representation of his method of ratiocination. Dupin’s ratiocinative method could easily be applied to Poe’s ideal reader (consider “The Philosophy of Composition”). In both, the general effect of the experience is more important than minute details or rational logic:
  • “…They have fake into the gross but common error of confounding the unusual with the abstruse. But it is by these devotions from the plane of the ordinary, that reason feels its way, if at all, in its search for the true. In investigations such as we are now pursuing, it should not be so much ask ‘what has occurred,’ as ‘what has occurred that has never occurred before.’..” (254)”Let him talk,” said Dupin, who had not thought it necessary to reply. “Let him discourse; it will ease his conscience. I am satisfied with having defeated him in his own castle. Nevertheless, that he failed in the solution of this mystery, is by no means that matter for wonder which he supposes it; for, in truth, our friend the Prefect is someone too cunning to be profound. In his wisdom is no stamen. It is all head and no body, like the pictures of the Goddess Laverna,-or, at best, all head and shoulders, like a codfish. But he is a good creature after all. I like him especially for one master stroke of cant, by which he has attained his reputation for ingenuity. I mean the way eh has ‘de nier ce qui est, et d’expliquer ce qui n’est pas.'” (270) (Translation: “Of denying that which is, and explaining that which is not.”)

  • Finally, it is difficult to discuss “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” without mentioning the potential racial elements of the story. The escaped orangutan may be a thinly veiled racist depiction of an escaped slave. This may also be used to feed off of the 19th century white American fear of slave mutinies and uprisings, as well as of miscegenation and sexual violence against white women.

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.