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The Murders in the Rue Morgue

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PoeRueMorgueByamShaw

Dupin confronts the sailor implicated in the crime, 1909 illustration for “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Byam Shaw.

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is a short story by the American author Edgar Allan Poe. It was first published in the April 1841 issue of Graham's Magazine. Considered to be the first modern detective fiction, the story introduces C. Auguste Dupin, a young Parisian gentleman with a brilliantly analytical mind, who appears in two additional tales by Poe; "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" (1842) and "The Purloined Letter" (1844).

The story concerns the brutal murders of two women in a locked room. When the police, baffled by the unusual atrocity of the crime and apparent lack of motive, arrest an acquaintance of his, Dupin decides to investigate. To solve the mystery, he must discover the means of escape, make sense of the extraordinary violence that led to a severed head and a body shoved up the chimney, and explain a strange voice heard speaking in a tone foreign to witnesses of various nationalities.

Mystery fans will recognize the influence "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" had on Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series, both in the structure of the story and the character of the brilliant detective. Doyle, who considered Poe the father of the detective genre, acknowledged the similarities when he had Watson compare Holmes to Dupin in A Study in Scarlet. Doyle also paid homage to Poe in the short story "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" (the section was moved to "The Adventure of the Resident Patient" in some editions). In the story, Holmes appears to read Dr. Watson's mind by commenting on what was in his unspoken thoughts. Holmes explains he did it as an exercise to prove that what Watson read in Poe and thought impossible can indeed be done. The reference is to "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in which Dupin surprises the unnamed narrator by suddenly breaking into his meditations with a response.

In addition to numerous literary detectives, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" has inspired many films, all very loosely based on the story, including the well-known Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) by Universal Pictures.

Plot

While residing in Paris one summer, the unnamed narrator meets C. Auguste Dupin, a young gentleman from an illustrious family in reduced circumstances. They decide to share lodging, and the narrator quickly becomes aware of Dupin's peculiar analytic ability.

One evening, the two friends read a report of extraordinary murders in the newspaper. Residents were roused by terrific shrieks from the fourth story of a house in the Rue Morgue around three a.m. A police officer and neighbors quickly broke in and rushed up the stairs. The apartment was in complete disorder with broken furniture thrown about the room. They found a bloody razor and long thick tresses of human hair, pulled out by the roots, along with money and jewelry. The remains of the owner, Madame L'Espanaye, and her daughter Camille were found after a thorough search. The daughter’s body, with deep indentations of fingernails upon the throat, had been thrust violently up the chimney. The mother's mutilated body, with the throat nearly cut off, was found in the backyard.

The following day's paper reports additional information. The women lived a retired life with no servants or frequent visitors. Three days before her death, Madame L'Espanaye withdrew 400 francs from the bank. A clerk accompanied her home with the gold in bags. Witnesses heard two loud voices in angry contention. One was a gruff voice of a Frenchman who was heard uttering “sacré,” “diable,” and “mon Dieu.” The other was a shrill voice of undetermined gender. Witnesses of various nationalities all declared its language foreign, though no distinguishable words were heard. A few minutes after the voices ceased, they forced the apartment door. Doors were locked on the inside, windows were fastened from within, and the chimneys were too narrow for human passage.

When the evening edition reports that the bank clerk, Adolphe Le Bon, has been arrested, Dupin suggests making a private inquiry into the murders. He knows the Prefect of Police, and manages to obtain the permission to see the premises. Arriving at the scene, Dupin first minutely examines the outside of the house. Then he scrutinizes everything inside, including the victims' bodies. On their way home, Dupin stops by the office of a daily newspaper, then declines to talk about the murders any further.

Aubrey Beardsley - Edgar Poe 1

1894 illustration for “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Aubrey Beardsley.

At noon the following day, Dupin suddenly begins to discuss the mystery. He claims that the unusual aspects of the crime which confounded the police actually made it easier for him to arrive at the solution. He then tells his astonished friend that he is now waiting for a person implicated in, though (he believes) innocent of, the murders.

Dupin explains that the strange second voice had led him to a certain suspicion which shaped his inquiries at the scene. He examined the windows and found them fastened by a concealed spring mechanism. A stout nail also secured each window frame, but one had a severed head just resting in its gimlet hole. The window would have, upon closing, re-fastened itself with the nail appearing in tact. Escaping through the window, the perpetrator could then have, if extraordinarily agile, swung from the shutter to reach the lightening rod. The same route could also have been used for entry if the window was open.

After pointing out the super-human strength indicated by the atrocities, Dupin gives the narrator a tuft of tawny hair, clearly non-human, he found clutched in the mother's fingers. He then produces tracings of finger marks taken from the daughter's throat, also non-human, and shows the narrator descriptions of an orangutan in a book. He reveals that he placed an advertisement in the newspaper claiming to have caught an orangutan and seeking its owner who is (judging by a piece of ribbon tied in a peculiar knot found at the foot of the lightening rod) a sailor on a Maltese vessel.

Daniel Urrabieta y Vierge - The Murders in the Rue Morgue

The sailor watches in horror as the women are butchered, 1870 illustration by Daniel Urrabieta y Vierge.

At that moment, they hear steps come up the stairs and Dupin invites in the tall and stout sailor. Sitting down to discuss a reward for the animal, Dupin asks the man for information about the murders. The sailor turns scarlet and grasps his cudgel, but quickly falls back into his seat trembling violently. Dupin assures him that they know him innocent and urges him to speak to save a man wrongly imprisoned for the crime. The sailor affirms his innocence then begins to tell his story.

Having captured the orangutan in Borneo, he brought it home to Paris intending to sell it. It escaped its enclosure while he was out, and was at the mirror imitating him shaving when he returned. At the sight of the whip, it fled into the street and, seeing the light, climbed the lightning rod and swung into the open window. He followed it up the rod and, unable to go farther, watched in horror as the animal, enraged by the screams and struggles, butchered the women. Afterwards, knowing it had done wrong, it was trying to hide the bodies as he fled home in terror.

With Dupin's analysis thus validated, they report the circumstances to the police. Le Bon is immediately released, and the orangutan is later captured and sold to the zoo.

Adaptations

Rue Morgue

Sidney Fox as Camille in the 1932 film Murders in the Rue Morgue.

There have been several films, both theatrical releases and made-for-television, loosely based on, or simply inspired by, Poe's story and with "Rue Morgue" in the title. The best known movie, Murders in the Rue Morgue by Universal Pictures (1932), has a main plot line completely unrelated to the original story. It stars Bela Lugosi as a mad doctor experimenting on women using a gorilla's blood. The only part of the film based on the short story is the attack on the heroine and her mother where the gorilla kills the mother and shoves her body up the chimney, and the subsequent testimonies by foreign witnesses who disagree on the language heard during the attack.

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" has also been adapted to radio, comic books, and a video game. There is also a song inspired by the story called "Murders in the Rue Morgue" in the Iron Maiden album Killers.

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