21 December 2014

The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, by Edgar Allen Poe

I probably read "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" when I was a teenager. I don't remember, but Auguste Dupin does seem to be someone I've met before. A friend inspired me to re-read this story yesterday. He emailed, saying that he was surprised to discover that A. Conan Doyle's concept of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson was less than original. My friend is a copious reader of Doyle's Holmes adventures--his email address includes a reference to the famous but fictional detective.

From my friend's email:

I never read The Murders in the Rue Morgue before, until now.  Edgar Allen Poe.  ...it is as if Arthur Conan Doyle simply lifted the structure of the work and made it his own.  The detective in the Poe story is a blueprint for Holmes.  His friend and sidekick is the model for Doctor Watson.  Having read all the Doyle books several times I could also pick out one or two details in the Poe story that [were] lifted...and used in the Holmes stories.

I was SHOCKED at how close it was.  All this time I thought ACD had come up with the greatest detective in fiction all on his own.  Doyle liked to talk about a professor he had in college that was the inspiration for Holmes...but if you've read Holmes half as much as I have--or not, just knowing Holmes and Watson would be enough--and then read The Murders in the Rue Morgue, then I think you would agree with me that ACD simply ripped off Poe.

I'm not sure if I've ever read anything from anyone else talking about this, but I'm guessing they have and I just haven't seen it.  To me the rip-off seems obvious.  On the other hand, LOTS of authors use the same structure; a brilliant, observational, logically thinking, detective, with a less brilliant side-kick/assistant who is astonished at how his friend can figure all these things out.  But in a way I wish I had never read The Murders in the Rue Morgue because it made me disappointed in Doyle...

...It might not be possible to be original.  There are only seven basic plots, according to Shakespeare.

My reply:

Well, you have inspired me to get out my "Complete Works" of Poe and re-read "Rue Morgue," which has led to me beginning to read the "Mystery of Mary Rogêt" as well. You have a good point. I am, however, inclined to let Doyle off the hook.

There is much imitation in art, and I think that modern reaction to plagiarism in various art forms is a bit exaggerated. John Fogerty was, after all, threatened with legal action when he produced a record album on which he sounded too much like John Fogerty to please his former record label. 

Doyle may well have gotten his idea for Holmes and Watson from Dupin and his (I think nameless?) companion. The idea that they roomed together and that both were somewhat removed from normal society, inclined to spend their time in eclectic pursuits, certainly does sound a bit like a description of the Sleuth of Baker Street and his friend. 

In my humble opinion, Doyle created enough original material on this framework that I cannot find him guilty. If there are only seven basic plots, how many basic plots can there be in the genre of murder mystery? There's certainly the basis for a term paper, if not a PhD thesis, here, and I'm not going to attempt the analysis.

Let's not forget some other Dupin-similar detectives, such as Hercule Poirot (and his sidekick, Captain Hastings). One of the paragraphs in "Rue Morgue" consisted of several questions, and in reading them I found that I had the voice of David Suchet as Poirot in my head. Another was Nero Wolfe, with Archie Goodwin. There are more, with varying degrees of Dupin-ness.

I could go on and on about this, but I'll just quote John Hartford's lyrics from "Tryin' to do Somethin' (to get your attention)" 

I tried real hard to make this song not sound like some other song I've written before.
If I did it's because my style and style is based on limitations.
I tried real hard not to make this song sound like some other song some other singer-songwriter might have written before.
And if I did, that's 'cause it's music, and music is based on repetition.
 It wasn't hard to find this discussion [by Drew R. Thomas] of the subject, which points out Doyle's direct reference to Poe and Dupin (whose name, I read somewhere while searching the 'net, can be seen as very close to "dupe," or "duping") in "A Study in Scarlet." Now I've certainly read that story at least three or four times, yet I had no recollection of this passage:

"It is simple enough as you explain it," I said, smiling. "You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories."

Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. "No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin," he observed. "Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour's silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine."

~from "A Study in Scarlet," by A. Conan Doyle
Thomas's article is quite interesting and complete; there's no reason to repeat more of it here, but I do recommend it to the reader interested in this topic. It is most gratifying to find a nugget such as this in the midden-pile that is the Internet. Oh, and don't miss the second part of the article, either. Mr. Thomas has given us some good work here.

It is evident that Doyle "borrowed" quite a bit from Poe. In today's litigious environment, there might be more said about this than was in the late 19th century. Thomas points out that, though Doyle used a lot of Poe's material, he most certainly created a wonderfully well-written body of work. For example, Thomas cites Doyle's use of dialog:

Poe's writing often included long, narrative passages with little dialogue. Doyle's stories have a lot more dialogue and are much more memorable and dramatic because of it. His dialogue sparkles, and Sherlockians love to quote from passages, such as the following:
  • You consider that to be important?" he asked.

    "Exceedingly so."

    "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

    "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

    "The dog did nothing in the night-time."

    "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
                                                               --from "Silver Blaze"

I did not find "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" to be as entertaining as "Rue Morgue." In fact, I had a hard time staying awake while reading it. There is a dense and complicated discussion of logic and reason as it applies to the case (which apparently is a fictionalization of a murder that actually did happen, though the real murder happened in New York City, and Poe's story is set in Paris), and at the end, instead of revealing the truth of the mystery, and telling us "whodunit," in the manner to which we modern mystery-readers are accustomed, we are merely assured that Dupin closed the case to the satisfaction of the police (and received payment from them), and then are treated to more of Dupin's lecture about logic and reason.

There is a third Dupin story, "The Purloined Letter." I will eventually get around to reading that one, I hope, but for the moment I think I'll put Poe aside.

All in all, I'd say that Doyle's stories are much more readable, as well as plentiful, and if he's guilty of a little borrowing, more power to him.

I read these stories in my copy of Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe,  which I've owned for years. This book is published by Doubleday, Copyright 1966, and numbers 821 pages, including a biographical note at the end.

Wikipedia Entry for C. Auguste Dupin

An item of minor interest occurred to me while reading Poe. I have noticed this before, but never gave it much thought. In fiction of a certain vintage, the authors often employ the device of seeming to protect names of people and places, and even the exact date, by giving only the first letter (or number) and following that with an em dash. In the Dupin stories, the Prefect of Police is named "G-.," for example. In addition, Poe will give a date such as "June the twenty-second, 18--."

It's not hard to understand the desire to make the exact date vague, as one's readers will not have to be distracted by knowledge of actual events in a specific year. Modern writers of fiction generally dance around this issue by simply not mentioning it, if that is the best way to handle it, or may hint at the exact year intended, or state it outright.

The masked names of people and places may come from a desire to make the fiction seem more like a report of actual events. In such a report, one would be constrained by the threat of a libel action against naming people specifically. In addition, perhaps writers in a former time were worried that they might offend someone if they gave a name coincident with that of a real person. The consequences of offense of that kind might have been fatal in Poe's era. I think they were still dueling back then.

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