Dupin, Detectives

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published on this day in 1841. Historians of the genre say it is the first detective story, its deductive hero, C. Auguste Dupin, a major inspiration for Inspector Bucket (Charles Dickens, Bleak House, 1853), Sergeant Cuff (Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone, 1868), and the others who followed.

Being a specialist in the art of “ratiocination,” Poe’s Dupin rises to the challenge delivered by a Paris newspaper in its report of the Rue Morgue crime: “…To this horrible mystery there is not as yet, we believe, the slightest clew.” As one of the victims was decapitated, so the trail to the killer proceeds from Dupin’s observation of a decapitated nail:

“There must be something wrong,” I said, “about the nail.” I touched it; and the head, with about a quarter of an inch of the shank, came off in my fingers. The rest of the shank was in the gimlet-hole, where it had been broken off…. I now carefully replaced this head portion in the indentation whence I had taken it, and the resemblance to a perfect nail was complete — the fissure was invisible. Pressing the spring, I gently raised the sash for a few inches; the head went up with it, remaining firm in its bed. I closed the window, and the semblance of the whole nail was again perfect.

This riddle, so far, was now unriddled. The assassin had escaped through the window which looked upon the bed.

The word detective had been coined the year before Poe’s story was published, and the first real professionals, a group of eight men appointed to this new branch of police work at Scotland Yard, came the year after. The story of one of the eight, a man with a name made for a career in ratiocination, is told in Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008). The following is taken from Summerscale’s opening paragraph:

This is the story of a murder committed in an English country house in 1860, perhaps the most disturbing murder of its time. The search for the killer threatened the career of one of the first and greatest detectives, inspired a “detective-fever” throughout England, and set the course of detective fiction.… For the country as a whole, the murder at Road Hill became a kind of myth — a dark fable about the Victorian family and the dangers of detection.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.