"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe published in Graham's Magazine in 1841. It has been claimed as the first detective story. Similar works predate Poe's stories, including Das Fräulein von Scuderi (1819) by E.T.A. Hoffmann and Zadig (1748) by Voltaire. Poe referred to it as one of his "tales of ratiocination".
C. Auguste Dupin is a man in Paris who solves the mysterious brutal murder of two women. Numerous witnesses heard a suspect, though no one agrees on what language was spoken. At the murder scene, Dupin finds a hair that does not appear to be human.
As the first true detective in fiction, the Dupin character established many literary devices which would be used in future fictional detectives including Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Many later characters, for example, follow Poe's model of the brilliant detective, his personal friend who serves as narrator, and the final revelation being presented before the reasoning that leads up to it. Dupin himself reappears in "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Purloined Letter".
Paris natives Dupin and his friend, the unnamed narrator of the story, read these newspaper accounts with interest. The two live in seclusion and allowing no visitors. They have cut off contact with "former associates" and venture outside only at night. "We existed within ourselves alone", the narrator explains. When a man named Adolphe Le Bon has been imprisoned though no evidence exists pointing to his guilt, Dupin is so intrigued that he offers his services to "G–", the prefect of police.
Because none of the witnesses can agree on the language the murderer spoke, Dupin assumes they were not hearing a human voice at all. He finds a hair at the scene of the murder that is quite unusual; "this is no human hair", he concludes. Dupin puts an advertisement in the newspaper asking if anyone has lost an "Ourang-Outang". The ad is answered by a sailor who comes to Dupin at his home. The sailor offers a reward for the orangutan's return; Dupin asks for all the information the sailor has about the murders in the Rue Morgue. The sailor reveals he had a wild orangutan whose companion had died. The animal escaped with the sailor's shaving straight razor. When he pursued the orangutan, it escaped by scaling a wall and climbing up a lightning rod, entering the apartment in the Rue Morgue through a window.
Once in the room, the surprised Madame L'Espanaye could not defend herself as the orangutan attempted to shave her in imitation of the sailor's daily routine. The bloody deed incited it to fury and it squeezed the daughter's throat until she died. Suddenly feeling guilty, it attempted to hide the body by stuffing it into the chimney. The sailor, aware of the "murder", panicked and fled, allowing the orangutan to escape. The prefect of police, upon hearing this story, mentions that people should mind their own business. Dupin responds that G– is "too cunning to be profound."
Dupin's method emphasizes the importance of reading and the written word. The newspaper accounts pique his curiosity and learns about orangutans from a written account by "Culvier". This method also engages the reader, who follows along by reading the clues himself. Poe also emphasizes the power of the spoken word. When Dupin asks the sailor for information about the murders, the sailor himself acts out a partial death: "The sailor's face flushed up as if he were struggling with suffocation... the next moment he fell back into his seat, trembling violently, and with the countenance of death itself.
Poe wrote "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" at a time when crime was at the forefront in people's minds due to urban development. London had recently established its first professional police force and American cities were beginning to focus on scientific police work as newspapers reported murders and criminal trials. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" establishes an urban theme which will be reused several times in Poe's fiction, in particular "The Man of the Crowd", likely inspired by Poe's time living in Philadelphia.
The tale has an underlying metaphor for the battle of brains vs. brawn. Physical strength, depicted as the orangutan as well as its owner, stand for violence: the orangutan is a murderer, while its owner admits he has abused the animal with a whip. The analyst's brainpower overcomes their violence. The story also contains Poe's often-used theme of the death of a beautiful woman, which he called the "most poetical topic in the world".
Upon its release, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and its author were praised for the creation of a new profound novelty. The Pennsylvania Inquirer printed that "it proves Mr Poe to be a man of genius... with an inventive power and skill, of which we know no parallel." Poe, however, downplayed his achievement in a letter to Philip Pendleton Cooke:
These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious – but people think them more ingenious than they are – on account of their method and air of method. In the "Murders in the Rue Morgue," for instance, where is the ingenuity in unraveling a web which you yourself... have woven for the express purpose of unraveling?"Modern readers are occasionally put off by Poe's violation of an implicit narrative convention, that the reader should be able to guess the solution as they read. The twist ending, however, is a sign of "bad faith" because readers would not reasonably include an orangutan on their list of potential murderers.
Poe may also have been expanding on previous analytical works of his own including the essay on "Maelzel's Chess Player" and the comedic "Three Sundays in a Week". As for the twist in the plot, Poe was likely inspired by the crowd reaction to an orangutan on display at the Masonic Hall in Philadelphia in July 1839. The name of the main character may have been inspired from the "Dupin" character in a series of stories first published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in 1828 called "Unpublished passages in the Life of Vidocq, the French Minister of Police". Poe would likely have known the story, which features an analytical man who discovers a murderer, though the two plots share little resemblance. Murder victims in both stories, however, have their neck cut so badly that the head is almost entirely removed from the body. Dupin actually mentions Vidocq by name, dismissing him as "a good guesser".
Poe originally titled the story "Murders in the Rue Trianon" but renamed it to better associate with death. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" first appeared in Graham's Magazine in April of 1841 while Poe was working as an editor. He was paid an additional $56 for it - an unusually high figure; he was only paid $9 for "The Raven". In 1843, Poe had the idea to print a series of pamphlets with his stories. He printed only one, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" oddly collected with the satirical "The Man That Was Used Up". It sold for 12 and a half cents. This version included 52 changes from the original text from Graham's, including the new line: "The Prefect is somewhat too cunning to be profound", a change from the original "too cunning to be acute". "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was also reprinted in Wiley & Putnam's collection of Poe's stories simply called Tales. Poe did not take part in selecting which tales would be collected.
Poe's "sequel" to "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was "The Mystery of Marie Roget", first serialized in December 1842 and January 1843. Though subtitled "A Sequel to 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue'", "The Mystery of Marie Roget" shares very few common elements with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" beyond the inclusion of C. Auguste Dupin and the Paris setting. Dupin reappeared in "The Purloined Letter", which Poe called "perhaps the best of my tales of ratiocination" in a letter to James Russell Lowell in July 1844.
The original manuscript of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" which was used for its first printing in Graham's Magazine was discarded in a wastebasket. An apprentice at the office, J. M. Johnston, retrieved it and left it with his father for safekeeping. It was left in a music book, where it survived three house fires before being bought by George William Childs. In 1891, Childs presented the manuscript, re-bound with a letter explaining its history, to Drexel University. Childs had also donated $650 for the completion of Edgar Allan Poe's new grave monument in Baltimore, Maryland in 1875.
"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was one of the earliest of Poe's works to be translated into French. Between June 11 and June 13, 1846, "Un meurtre sans exemple dans les Fastes de la Justice" was published in La Quotidienne, a Paris newspaper. Poe's name was not mentioned and many details, including the name of the Rue Morgue and the main characters ("Dupin" became "Bernier"), were changed. On October 12, 1846, another uncredited translation, renamed "Une Sanglante Enigme", was published in Le Commerce. The editor of Le Commerce was accused of plagiarizing the story from La Quotidienne. The accusation went to trial and the public discussion brought Poe's name into the French public.