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Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin – The First Credited Fictional Detective

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

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.

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illustration of “The Mystery of Marie Roget”

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.

illustration from "The Purloined Letter"

illustration from “The Purloined Letter”

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.

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2014 in Fiction

 

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) – Arthur Conan Doyle

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Sidney Paget’s illustration of Holmes for Strand Magazine for the story “The Man With the Twisted Lip”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced Sherlock Holmes in two books: A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, however, it was in his short stories that the character of Sherlock Holmes really became widely followed. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1892 and contains the first twelve short stories that he published in the Strand Magazine.

It was on my bookshelf (I got a very nice copy at a library book sale) and I decided that it was about time that I read Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to counter the great diversity of Sherlock Holmes adaptations I had seen on screen.

What I chiefly noticed was how Sherlock Holmes seemed to me a man of so many parts that no actor has ever succeeded in fully portraying him. I think actors must choose a certain interpretation and stick with it, but Holmes in the stories has quite a few moods and personality quirks.

He was more amiable than I had expected him to be; he really does have pretty good people skills – not that he always uses them. He’s good at putting his clients at ease and drawing them out to tell him their full story. He seems, especially, to have a knack for putting his female clients at ease, with an almost gentle (perhaps not exactly gentle, but reassuring) interest in their concerns. Out of the twelve stories, he has five female clients. He even takes a slight interest in their welfare and can admire their courage and fortitude. Watson, however, expresses disappointment at the end of the final story in the book, “The Adventure of the Copper Beaches,” that Holmes’ interest in his client, Violet Hunter, ceases as soon as the case is over. Holmes also has, most famously, tremendous admiration for Irene Adler, who manages to outwit him in “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

He also can alternate between tranquil cold logic and fanatical pursuit. Here is Watson’s description of him in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”

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Sidney Paget’s illustration for the Strand Magazine for the story “The Adventure of the Copper Beaches”

“Sherlock Holmes was transformed when he was hot upon a scent as this. Men who had only known the quiet thinker and logician of Baker Street would have failed to recognize him. His face flushed and darkened. His brows were drawn into two hard black lines, while his eyes shone from beneath them with a steely glitter. His face was bent downward, his shoulders bowed, his lips compressed, and the veins stood out like whipcord in his long, sinewy neck. His nostrils seemed to dilate with a purely animal lust for the chase, and his mind was so absolutely concentrated upon the matter before him that a question or remark fell unheeded upon his ears, or, at the most, only provoked a quick, impatient snarl in reply.”

Here is yet another side of Sherlock Holmes, from “The Red-headed League”

“All afternoon he sat in the stalls wrapped in the most perfect happiness, gently waving his long, thin fingers in time to the music, while his gently smiling face and his languid, dreamy eyes were as unlike those of Holmes, the sleuth-hound, Holmes the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent, as it was possible to conceive.”

Dr. Watson is also rather different in the stories; he’s a bit of a blank wall. We know he is married, sympathetic to other people’s problems, handy with his gun, game for all Holmes’ adventures, but his main purpose is to reflect light on Holmes. The stories he selects to tell – or that Doyle chose to write – are mostly meant to demonstrate Holmes’ incredible deductive powers, so he chose cases that were on the surface, simple or even trivial, arguing that more sensational cases are less interesting. In some of the cases, there isn’t even anything criminal going on, just dubious or mysterious. He shows how much he can learn from a man by just looking at his hat in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” and demonstrates his ability more than once to determine the true identity of various people.

Sidney Paget's illustration for "The Five Orange Pips"

Sidney Paget’s illustration for “The Five Orange Pips”

I think I have decided that I am okay if my Sherlock Holmes film adaptations are not like the stories. I’ve seen at least seven different actors play him: John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Jonathan Pryce, Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and Jonny Lee Miller. My favorites are Basil Rathbone and Benedict Cumberbatch, for reasons that have very little to do with accuracy, since I have only just read any Sherlock Holmes stories. Basil Rathbone’s version is a lot of fun. And even though his Watson (Nigel Bruce) is not the brightest chap, their interactions are entertaining. His later Sherlock movies portray him practically as a superhero, friend of the people type. But that’s not entirely an inaccurate idea. In the stories, Holmes frequently takes matters of justice into his own hands, deciding the fate of people, quite apart from the police, and generally providing assistance and pretty much helping anyone who comes to him, regardless of finances or class.

I also really enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch’s rendition of the character, even though his is a slightly more neurotic portrayal, and perhaps a little more emotional, but marvelously well done and he has excellent chemistry with Martin Freeman’s Watson. Jeremy Brett is the one usually considered the most accurate. I haven’t seen many of his; the one I did see, however, was extremely close to the story I had just read, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” but it was so extremely close that it was seemed literally to be word-for word. This might be an eccentric complaint, but I think that is actually too close for me. I want my movies to bring something new, otherwise I feel like I might as well just read the books. And it was well worth reading. I don’t know why it took me so long to actually get around to reading Doyle’s Holmes.

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2014 in Fiction

 

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