Poe's Tales of Ratiocination - A Closer Look

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009
20 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Poe and the detective story

3 Characteristics of Poe's Dupin stories
3.1 Content of the stories
3.2 Dupin the detective

4 Ratiocination and the Power of Detection
4.1 Ratiocination in The Murders of the Rue Morgue
4.2 Ratiocination in The Purloined Letter
4.3 Never trust the detective's method

5 Dupin as a template for modern detectives

6 Conclusion

7 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Edgar Allan Poe is considered a literary genius that did not only concentrate on one genre but also succeeded in many different types of literature. He gained a reputation as a poet, a literary critic, and as a writer of gothic tales of terror and science fiction. Through his tales of ratiocination – how he himself called them – he also became one of the first authors of crime fiction.

In this paper I intend to analyze two of his detective stories: The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter. The focus will be on an analysis concerning the ratiocination – the way of deductive and inductive reasoning – performed by Dupin, the protagonist detective. Furthermore, I would like to present the question of whether Dupin really arrives at his conclusions by mere ratiocination and the process of reasoning or whether there are other things involved.

Before I delve into this problem though, I would like to present a short history of the crime story with Poe as the "inventor" of the detective story in the center. After that follows a short description and demonstration of the characteristics of Poe's detective stories as well as a characterization of the protagonist, detective Dupin. Before I conclude the paper, I will compare the Dupin stories to modern detective fiction that can be found in television programming.

2 Poe and the detective story

When you turn on television and browse through the channels you will find at least some programs that deal with crime and detection: from Columbo, to Monk or to the relatively new CSI series. Crime is as old as humanity. There has always been an interest in it. Therefore it is not surprising that crime fiction has become what it is today: A commodity good which attracts many people from different ranges of society. During the last three to four decades, crime fiction has even found its way into the academia and is no longer something that people read only for pleasure (Priestman 1). One question critics have always asked about is the beginnings of the crime story. Many claim that Edgar Allan Poe was the father of the detective story, however, let us take a brief look at the history of crime fiction before we agree with that.

Stories[1] of crime can also be found in the Old Testament, more precisely in the Book of Daniel: Susanne and the Elders and Daniel and the Priest of Bel are examples for that. And of course, the tale about Adam and Eve's oldest children: Cain who murdered his brother Abel out of jealousy. In Greek Mythology there is the story about Oedpius who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. In the eighteenth century the cautionary tale developed: Society should be deterred from doing evil by reading about criminals and their doom. An example for this is the Newgate Calendar (1773) which is a collection of tales about how the prisoners of the Newgate Prison were captured, tried, and punished. A few years later William Godwin wrote his well-known novel Caleb Williams (1794) which is considered "as one of the most significant precursors to the detective novel" (Scaggs 14). Caleb Williams (as a kind of detective) has to figure out that his aristocratic employer, Falkland, is the murderer of the local squire, Tyrrel.

The founding and the establishment of the police organizations in Europe and the USA led to the full development of the classic detective story. In France it happened as early as 1812 with the founding of the Sûreté, the civil police force founded by Eugène François Vidocq. With the Metropolitan Police Act of 1828, a permanent police force also was introduced in England under Sir Robert Peel. It was a response to rising crime rates in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century due to the shifting distribution of population, the Industrial Revolution, and a large-scale unemployment. Scaggs concludes: "The inevitable response to the widespread emergence of the professional criminal was the birth of the modern policeman" (18).

In 1842, the Metropolitan Police created the 'Detective Department' and only one year before, Poe published the first of three detective stories The Murders in the Rue Morgue (Kayman 44). Dupin, the fictional detective in Poe's stories, is not working with the police; he is even a kind of a counterpart in that he does not hesitate to criticize them overtly:

The Parisian police, so much extolled for acumen, are cunning, but no more. There is no method in their proceedings, beyond the method of the moment. They make a vast parade of measures; but, not unfrequently, these are so ill adapted to the objects proposed, as to put us in mind of Monsieur Jourdain's calling for his robe-de-chambre --pour mieux entendre la musique. The results attained by them are not unfrequently surprising, but, for the most part, are brought about by simple diligence and activity. When these qualities are unavailing, their schemes fail, […] (Poe, "Murders" 152)

Alongside the introduction of the detective as a protagonist (Kayman 41) , Poe invented many motifs still in use in these kinds of stories like "the murder in the locked room, the unjustly accused suspect, analysis by psychological deduction, and the complementary solutions of the least likely person and the most likely place" (Van Leer 65). He has been imitated by a multitude of authors and screenplay writers ever since. The most famous example of this is probably the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes who was introduced by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887 with his first detective mystery novel, A Study in Scarlet. Many other detective novels and short stories followed which made Doyle and his protagonist Holmes an international success.

For other authors the detective story introduced by Poe and refined by Doyle served as a kind of template. During the Golden Age (interwar period) in Great Britain, writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers published many novels and stories featuring one protagonist detective: Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey solved many mysteries in the classic 'whodunnit' style. During the same time, hardboiled private-eye fiction developed in the US with authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The stories concentrate on the character of the detective and the plot contains much violence and betrayal. In the last decades, the hard-boiled genre expanded and now also features women, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals as detectives. Another kind of crime fiction, which is often influenced by hard-boiled fiction, emerged and is now represented in literature and film: The police procedural where a team of professional police officers examine the crime together, often using advanced technology and scientific methods to find the criminal.

From this point of view it is easy to agree that Dupin in Poe's stories was the precursor of the classic detective in crime fiction. Although of course altered and adapted in many ways, the basic principle of an intelligent sleuth who usually is smarter than the police or the readership is still used in the same way. Are there any other characteristics in modern fictional detectives that have survived? To answer this question we first should look at the detective Dupin and his methods of investigating.

3 Characteristics of Poe's Dupin stories

After having heard much about the history of the detective story, I suggest taking a closer look at the stories themselves, especially at the detective Dupin. At first I want to talk about some general characteristics that unite all three narratives, then I am giving a brief overview about the three stories, and finally I am providing a characterization of the protagonist Dupin.

It is very important that the reader differentiates between the author Poe and the protagonist Dupin. This distinction has not always been made by literary critics. The author is the one who creates the mystery of the whole story. Thoms (133) suggests that each of the Dupin stories is constructed by three 'narrators'. The narrator itself who provides the narrative frame; the criminal, who tries to obstruct the "formation of a rounded narrative" by writing the secret story (the crime); and Dupin as detective who in the end takes over the original narrative from the narrator by explaining how he came to the solution. The image of reading and writing the story is an analogy to the detection of the crime: The detective, as mentioned above, becomes the reader of the crime and simultaneously the author of the story since it is he who reveals the hidden story of the crime at the end. Dupin's reading of the crime is literally evident when he tries to get clues from reading newspaper articles ("Mystery" and "Murders") or when he reads the crime scene ("Murders") or when he scans the minister's office for the letter ("Letter"). With this "skilled act of reading and writing" the detective becomes the "hero" because he "uncovers what happened" (Thoms 135). In this way Dupin gains control of the (crime) story, which lifts him in a position of power over the criminal but also over the narrator (Thoms 133-141).

The reader (you and me) becomes a detective himself because he is "pushe[d] […] away from the proffered answers and towards a renewed investigation of mystery" (Thoms 133).The reader is invited to read the secret story of the crime himself, to follow the detective, and to try to read the same as he does (Thoms 133). This invitation, however, is not supported by Dupin at all. He usually does not share his thoughts and clues till the very end of the story when he reveals what happened. The reader therefore is not able to "solve the mystery along with Dupin" (Van Leer 66).

Another characteristic of all three stories is that the plot itself does not seem to be relevant to the story. In all three narratives "the manner of […] discovery and interpretation, and general philosophical discussions" (Van Leer 67) are placed in the center of the story. Van Leer blames this on the fractured chronology which is typical for all three tales.


[1] The following information is from John Scaggs's Crime Fiction (7-32) unless otherwise indicated

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Poe's Tales of Ratiocination - A Closer Look
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg  (Amerikanistik)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Poe, Crime fiction, ratiocination, murders in the rue morgue, the purloined letter
Quote paper
Eva Deinzer (Author), 2009, Poe's Tales of Ratiocination - A Closer Look, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/200376


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