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Thursday
Mar182010

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Whenever historically-minded scholars try to pinpoint the beginnings of the detective story, they often find themselves pondering the meaning of the terminology we apply like a cookie cutter to any tale that contains an initially unsolved crime.  To be sure, there are stories in which the only person who does not know what has occurred is the same poor soul entrusted with an official investigation; other narratives move from one mystery to one another so that, in the end, we are neither closer to solving these conundra nor quite certain what to make of the circumstances that have obtained.  An example of the former type is this well-known detective series; an example of the latter is an anagram for what has been termed the postmodern.

Now readers of these pages might have an inkling as to what I think of postmodern literature (never mind manifestations of its visual arts, which are best left unmentioned): with few exceptions of brilliant creativity such as this novel of genius, most attempts are laborious endeavors to mystify and obscure the truth behind a parade of parlor tricks that, upon close inspection, do not add up to much at all.  Their aim?  To point out the inherent contradictions in our system of values that lead them to assert, with no iota of conviction one way or another, that what we see and think and feel is not only relative, it also does not make any sense.  Since life doesn't make sense, and art is known in many circles to be nothing more than an imitation of life, it similarly has no such obligations to conform to logic.  Purveyors of such rot are easy to identify: they will tell a story that seems to contradict itself and when you ask for explanation, will inform you are too stupid to understand their charlatanism, I mean, their subtlety; they will waft around cocktail parties half-drunk and recount degrading stories of famous artists' lives, perhaps because their own lives, while degraded by no hope or imagination, are not nearly as interesting as those of the people they mock; and they will publish ironic and wholly nonsensical articles filled with neologisms and jargon that reference one another to make it seem as if there lurks a network of like-minded critics who collectively march towards truth, when their real destination is darkest oblivion.  What these second-raters do not understand is that true art does not destroy, it builds; it builds on the accomplishments of its forerunners and anticipates to a great extent its successors.  And all successors to the detective story owe something to this odd but rather amazing tale.

Our narrator – he remains unnamed throughout – tickles our fancy with an introduction both poorly organized and completely fascinating on the nature, as it were, of logic.  He begins this discourse with an observation about that supposedly most intellectual of childish pursuits, chess:

the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess.  In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound. The attention is here called powerfully into play.  If it flag for an instant, an oversight is committed, resulting in injury or defeat.  The possible moves being not only manifold but involute, the chances of such oversights are multiplied; and in nine cases out of ten it is the more concentrative rather than the more acute player who conquers.

This setup suggests that the meaty portion of our narrative will provide evidence of such an approach – which, as it turns out, it does and does not – but what happens next is much more interesting for the history of letters because our narrator turns out to be our Boswell.  He quickly shifts into an introduction of a certain Auguste Dupin, a Frenchman of “an illustrious family,” who “had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it, and he ceased to bestir himself in the world, or to care for the retrieval of his fortunes.”  With a bit of shrewdness and understated austerity Dupin is able to maintain himself on his intellectual interests with “books as his sole luxuries.”  Starving intellectuals are unfortunately nothing new to either literature or life; but the acuity of Dupin’s reasoning is more than unusual and something akin to phenomenal.  To prove this claim our narrator then devotes another dozen paragraphs to Dupin’s amazing deduction that culminates in the observation, “he is a very little fellow, that's true, and would do better for the Theatre des Variétés,” a tactic that will remind the reader of this later work.  Yes, Holmes is a direct descendent of Dupin, and even goes so far as to criticize Dupin for precisely the trick of deductive reasoning (in the form of intrusive commentary at just the right time) that Holmes would make famous.  That does not stop Dupin, however, from making a name for himself.

The eponymous "murders" are some of the famous ever committed and involve an old woman and her daughter, a locked apartment on the fourth floor of a Paris building, a passel of witnesses who all claim to have heard a foreigner speaking "in a shrill voice" at the time of the murders, although they cannot agree at all on what language he spoke, and a sailor on a Maltese vessel.  One part of the solution, which is both ingenious and preposterous, would be copied in a Holmes story and, alas, the culprit can be easily ascertained through an image search of the title on the intergalactic weapon known as Google.  Nothing more should be said except one line from Dupin:

Coincidences, in general, are great stumbling-blocks in the way of that class of thinkers who have been educated to know nothing of the theory of possibilities – that theory to which the most glorious objects of human research are indebted for the most glorious of illustration.

How strange, then, that this maxim, so well-kept and yet so very trivial, doesn't actually apply to the case in question.  Could we have detectives of integrity rather than opportunity?  Perhaps at the very beginning of it all.

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