I have often read of how much Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes owed to Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and when I got around to finally reading Poe’s stories, I was suprirsed to find how much.
Edgar Allan Poe is generally credited with being the first writer of detective fiction and he certainly is the one to first outline the kinds of things you encounter in the genre: locked room mysteries, armchair detectives, blackmail, missing valuables, less-than-brilliant police (which probably isn’t fair to the police), jealousy, murder, smoking pipes, innocents accused, odd crimes that have fantastic, but very simple solutions. He practically wrote the clichés, and all in three short stories.
The first story he wrote in 1841 was called “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In it we first meet C. August Dupin. He is a young man who lost much of his family wealth through some legal difficulty and has grown lethargic and uncaring of the world except in how it engages and feeds his mind. The narrator of the story is an unnamed man, seemingly not French, but who is living in France and was so much struck with the unusual character and mind of Dupin that he took up residence with him, paying most of the expenses.
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is, however, more of an exercise in what Poe calls ratiocination than a real mystery as we conceive of it today. Ratiocination is the process of logical reasoning and analysis and Poe is extremely interested in this process. He opens the story with a discussion of analysis versus calculation and argues that draughts (checkers is a form of draughts) is a game that involves far more analysis than chess, which is merely a game of concentration and calculation. The actual mystery involves a mysterious and violent murder that apparently took place in a locked room with no exit for the murderer. Dupin interests himself in the case and solves it, without help from the police and for his own amusement.
The second story Poe wrote in 1842 is “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” This story is actually based on a real murder in New York when a cigar girl (girl who sold cigars in a cigar emporium) was mysteriously murdered and became, like the Jack the Ripper murders, one of the earliest examples of sensational murder that captured the attention of the nation and marshalled the efforts and speculation of all the newspapers. The case was never solved, but Poe used the real incident as inspiration for his next story. Changing the names slightly, he set the story in Paris and told it almost exactly as it really occurred, arguing that his story would prove useful in directing the police in how to solve the real crime.
Once again, Poe is extremely interested in ratiocination and almost the entire story is taken up with Dupin’s systematic debunking of various views of the newspapers and his outlining of how he would proceed in the investigation if he were the police.
The final story Poe wrote with Dupin was “The Purloined Letter” (1844), which I think is perhaps his most engaging story. This time, the prefect of police has come to Dupin because there is a letter stolen that the prefect cannot locate. In this tale, Dupin gets a chance to demonstrate what he is often asserting – that what is simple and obvious is often the most difficult to figure out.
Throughout the stories, Dupin remains largely opaque. He seems to spend all his time reading or lost in thought (or found in thought) and smokes his meerschaum pipe. He is not actually a detective, either. He only gets involved with the police because he interested himself in the case of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and is so successful that the police afterwards come to him with their perplexities.
The similarities between Poe and Doyle are quite strong – the emphasis on ratiocination, the admiring chronicler of the great man’s genius, the constant smoking (at one point Dupin is described as being “amid a perfect whirlwind of smoke,” something that could often be said of Holmes), the emphasis on how the simple can be the most difficult, the ego of the men. Sherlock Holmes is a master of disguise and Dupin several times wears tinted spectacles to mask the movement of his eyes, whether for sleeping or looking for the missing letter. Both are in love with the inner workings of the mind.
However, I have to admit that I believe Sherlock Holmes is a great improvement on C. Auguste Dupin. What Sherlock Holmes really has, that Dupin does not, is personality. We don’t necessarily know Holmes more than we do Dupin, but his personality has so much flair and his friendship with Watson adds a touch of humanity that makes him a far more engaging character.
What Doyle improves on, also, is the quality and excitement of his stories. The difficulty I encountered in reading Poe is that his stories are really just extreme exercises in mental analysis. The stories themselves are a pretext for Dupin to explain the exact workings of his mind to the narrator. He is the ultimate in armchair detective, though he does go out twice in the three stories, but the meat of the tales are really in him just sitting and explaining. With Doyle, Holmes goes out much more, engages in more physical activity, encounters physical danger, and actually interacts with victims and criminals.
Of course, there were only three Dupin stories, so in a way, it is unfair to compare him to the oft chronicled Holmes. And Poe does remain, to this day, well worth reading, even if it is because he was the founder of the genre.