C. Auguste Dupin: The First Detective

As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play. He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordingary apprehension praeturnatural. His results, brought about by the very soul and essence of method, have, in truth, the whole air of intuition.

Edgar Allen Poe

In 1841, Edgar Allen Poe penned and published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Here, Poe introduces the world to the very first look at what a “detective” does. In Chevelier C. Auguste Dupin, we can see a foreshadowing not only of Sherlock Holmes, but also of Hercule Poirot. There are three stories in total, “The Murders of the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and “The Purloined Letter.”

At the time, the word “detective” didn’t yet exist in the English language and Poe has to resort to some very extensive and elaborate descriptions to the reader up with Dupin’s methods. Poe’s “analyst” is described as a chess player, a mathematician, and a strategist. In fact, he spends two and a half pages (in my edition at least) expounding upon the intellectual qualities possessed of such an “analyst.” 

For clarity’s sake, we will use the modern word “detective” since that is what we are all used to at this point and because we associate the task of analysis in regards to crime not with an analyst but with a detective. True, there are now “crime scene analysts” in modern police work, but we associate those now with scientists and not the actual people who find out “who done it.” 

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On first acquaintance, Dupin sounds an awful lot like Roderick Usher from “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Oddly enough, since “The Fall of the House of Usher” was published before “The Murders of the Rue Morgue,” it’s not too far of a stretch to say that Dupin is another play upon the basic character of Roderick Usher: aristocratic, sensitive, morose, introverted, and reclusive. 

Unlike the Usher family whose obvious state of misfortune is not clearly defined, Dupin’s family fortune is very well defined. His family suffered from a “variety of untoward events” which, in 1841 would have meant for person of aristocratic basically the loss not only of status, but of respect and fortune into the bargain. The French Revolution with its Reign of Terror, the Napoleonic years, the restoration of the French monarchy and then the establishment of the republic had taken their toll and we can see this in the beginning of “The Mystery of Marie Roget” where it’s revealed that Dupin, far from being enlivened by his efforts, has sunk back into his reclusive and depressed existence. 

Like the rest of Poe’s stories, the narrator is not named. He is also somewhat of a benefactor to his friend. How Dupin usually lives is not described by anything more than frugally, but while the nameless narrator stays in Paris, he obtains lodging for them in—get this—a dilapidated mansion. More precisely, it’s a “time-eaten and grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions into which we did not inquire.” Yes, you read that correctly: they live in a haunted mansion. Well, a haunted mansion to other people. Dupin and his friend seemingly dismiss the existence of anything “haunted” in the world itself. 

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If we were to gather the various details of Dupin together into a list, we would arrive at seven points: 

  1. Gentleman i.e. aristocratic birth or temperament
  2. Eccentric habits (book collecting, opium addiction, fastidious in appearance, etc)
  3. Highly self-educated 
  4. Extremely observant
  5. Has a less intelligent side-kick who narrates events
  6. Has a simultaneous respect for the authority of the police even while the detective himself criticizes their methods
  7. Uses both induction and deduction

Here, you have the basic blueprint for nearly every detective who would come afterwards well into the early 20thcentury. Within this list there are variations, of course. Lord Peter Wimsey, for instance, is Oxford educated while Albert Campion is energetic and, like Poirot, a bit of a dandy.

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Now, you are probably scratching your head at the word “induction.” No, we are not referring to a specific type of cooktop. We are, however, looking a specific way of ordering information and drawing conclusions. The art of deduction is the art of seeing what is in front of you and drawing conclusions from there. This is what we see the police do in “The Murders of the Rue Morgue.” 

Inductive reasons, however, allows a set of facts or evidence to be seen and then conclusions drawn about what can’t be seen. This is how Dupin arrives at the conclusion that the murders had to have left by the windows and that the windows themselves are not what they seem. It’s also how he arrives at the true guilty party in the murders and sets a trap for him. 

I will not bore you with the details of the Dupin stories for their methods of induction and deduction are very nearly exact to both Holmes and Poirot. I would even go so far as to say that the story of “The Purloined Letter” was copied nearly exact in Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Moreover, the style of narration is primarily that of Dupin soliloquizing and the nameless narrator listening. There’s little of the interplay between Dupin and his friend that exists between Holmes and Watson or Poirot and Hastings. 

As transition pieces from Gothic to Detective fiction, however, the Dupin stories are very instructive and the character of Dupin himself is a blend of Gothic anti-hero, energetic investigator, and genius. He’s the doomed son of a doomed house walking the night and solving murders. He’s Roderick Usher transplanted to Paris, he’s Milton’s Lucifer brooding away in the darkness, and when he’s roused, he approaches levels of analysis which the police cannot hope to achieve. He’s also somewhat boring, to be honest. Holmes and Poirot are more direct. While Dupin rambles at length describing his methods, they provide valuable insight into what Holmes would later call “the game”—the art of reasoning from the set of facts given to both discover what can be observed and to see what cannot be observed. 

The “game” is piecing together different facts to form a picture, or a pattern. The non-human hairs clutched in one of the dead women’s hands, the existence in Paris of a large exotic ape from Borneo, the lightning rod just outside the room where the murders had taken place, the voice which not one of the witnesses could properly place, and the piece of ribbon from a sailor’s uniform all come together to form a picture of what happened. 

Dupin’s explanation of “the game” may seem long-winded, but it is the forerunner to all the versions of the game which would come after and it’s definitely worth a read, if only for a greater insight into the methods which we have all come to know and enjoy.

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