Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Dupin Mysteries

Between 1841 and 1844, Edgar Allan Poe invented the genre of detective fiction with three mesmerizing stories of a young French eccentric named C. Auguste Dupin. Introducing to literature the concept of applying reason to solving crime, these tales brought Poe fame and fortune. Years later, Dorothy Sayers would describe “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” as “almost a complete manual of detective theory and practice.” Indeed, Poe’s short mysteries inspired the creation of countless literary sleuths, among them Sherlock Holmes. Today, the unique Dupin stories still stand out as utterly engrossing page-turners. (x)
     I had begun to read "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" last September, but had only gotten through the first page when a passing sentence struck my fancy and I was hit with inspiration for my own story "For Elise." I meant to finish Poe’s story eventually, but I’m afraid I never got around to it until yesterday, when my eyes landed upon my copy of The Complete Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. I actually had some free time that afternoon, so while I was at it I also read the other two Dupin stories, "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" and "The Purloined Letter."

     I didn’t think I had read “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” before, but as the explanation to the mystery became clear, it seemed very familiar—I’m still not sure if I actually had read the story before, or if I had just heard about it. Either way, I wasn’t at all familiar with “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (which was inspired by/correlates to an actual case that happened in America about the same time) or “The Purloined Letter.”

     I was curious about these stories since Poe is considered the father of the detective genre and C. Auguste Dupin a precursor to Sherlock Holmes (despite the latter character's disparaging remarks upon the eccentric Frenchman). But I also wondered by what chance it was that relegated Dupin to relative obscurity while Holmes has become the best-known fictional character in recent literature.

     Reading this trio of mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inspiration for Holmes is evident in the writing style, logical thought processes, and the classic detective-and-sidekick setup. But Conan Doyle managed to bring in active adventure, distinct personalities, and even a dash of melodrama into his stories, whereas Poe's offering largely falters in such regards. Dupin has very little personality that we get to see; he exists almost solely to carry the burden of unraveling the mystery. He doesn't stand on his own—unlike in Holmes's case, the reader's interest of his character doesn't really extend outside the frame of the story. And our narrator does little to illuminate the reader as to his own personality. In fact, in the later two stories especially, he is almost unnecessary given that he is excluded from most of the dialogue, except to take the place of the reader to ask the occasional question. John Watson is used to fulfill this purpose as well, but he also is more personable and has a deeply endearing relationship with Sherlock Holmes that the reader gets to see.

     Poe's Dupin stories still have much to offer in entertainment value, and they are groundbreaking in their way. Their influence in setting the precedence for logic in criminal investigational fiction alone makes them worth the read for any mystery lover. However, I don't think they quite measure up to some of the later, more well-developed works of detective fiction.

(This is a slightly elaborated and expanded version of my goodreads review)


isaacbenjamin said...

Very interesting. If Poe had made Dupin too well rounded and with personality he would have had no time to write scary horror stories. Everyone would have clamored for more Dupin stories. Poe might have killed off Dupin in desperation.

Hayden said...

Haha! Good point ;)

Rachel said...

I think your point about the lack of real, full personality is truly the key reason why Dupin is relatively obscure while Holmes is one of the most recognizable fictional characters of all time. Poe excelled at plot (not necessarily Doyle's strong suit..ha!) and suspense and making his stories themselves memorable, but not really at creating characters so real that you feel like you know them.

Hayden said...

Exactly! Poe does have some stellar, memorable plots, but his characters can be rather one-dimensional. I think both Poe and Doyle are good writers, just in different ways. :)

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