Friday, August 24, 2012

The Dupin Tales

I seemed to be upon the verge of comprehension, without the power to comprehend as men, at time, find themselves upon the brink of remembrance, without being able, in the end, to remember.

Though some might dispute this point, most people believe the birth of detective fiction as we know it to have come about with the 1841 publication of Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue".  His creation of C. Auguste Dupin, the intelligent amateur detective who solves crimes by deduction, was to become the model for almost every fictional detective to follow.  Dupin would appear in a total of 3 stories, and the literary world would never be the same.

The Plot:

The stories are told to us by an unnamed narrator who befriends and then lives with C. Auguste Dupin, a Parisienne from a wealthy family who is now living in relatively reduced circumstances.  Dupin is an analytical machine, focused purely on logic and its application in life.  He solves crimes merely for fun (and to prove his own intelligence) and rarely accepts compensation or fame for it.  Whether it involves the horrific murder of a mother and daughter, the mysterious death of a pretty young woman, or the blackmail of a person in the highest level of French society, Dupin sets about untangling the many theories to discover the truth.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

Though I do think it is important to read these tales as a history of detective fiction, I must admit that they have a fairly dated feel.  Our society is very familiar with this genre, not just in books but also in films and television.  So when we read these stories that are nowhere near as intricate and developed as the ones that would come later, then we can't help but stifle a yawn now then.  There are, however, some good points to the stories that make them worth your time.

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is our introduction to the work of Dupin.  Neither Dupin nor the unnamed narrator are fleshed out too much as characters.  It is mainly the crime and Dupin's method of solving it that we are most concerned about.  I have to say, the murders themselves are done in true Poe style.  I mean, one body thrown out the window and another stuffed up the chimney should please any CSI fan.  We are given all of the details of the crime and most of the clues.  We then get to sit back and watch as Dupin logically puts them together to discover who the true murderer is.  This is probably the 2nd best story of the three.

Ever heard of "The Mystery of Marie Roget"?  There's a reason for that.  It is based on a true story in Manhattan, and though it starts out interesting it does not continue that way.  The bulk of the story involves us reading accounts from various newspapers and then sitting through extremely long monologues of Dupin describing why those accounts are wrong.  We get it Dupin.  You're smart.  But do we seriously have to listen to you drone on and on and on?  Plus, the truth of the crime does not live up to expectation.  Skip this one.

The final Dupin story is, in my opinion, the best.  In "The Purloined Letter", the French queen is being blackmailed by a powerful diplomat over a compromising letter that has fallen into his possession.  The police tear the diplomat's apartments apart but find nothing.  It is Dupin that discovers the letter hidden in the most obvious, and yet the most overlooked of places.  Crimes are always more fun when there is an intelligent villain for the detective to match wits with.  And Dupin's method of resolving the matter is both interesting and fun.  This story lacks a murder, but nevertheless is the most developed and enjoyable of the three.

Though uneven in places, these stories form an important part in both Poe's body of work and the history of detective fiction.  They are important for understanding the development of the genre and for that reason I do recommend that you read at least one of them.

The Movie:

There are 2 film versions of the Dupin tales.  One is the 1932 version of Murders in the Rue Morgue starring Bela Lugosi.  This shares some names and plot devices with the original but little else.  There is also a 1942 version of The Mystery of Marie Roget starring Joseph Cotten.          

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