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Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin Trilogy and Poe's Commentary on Antebellum Bureaucracy

Updated on September 13, 2016

The Dupin trilogy, featuring the detective Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, contains “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and “The Purloined Letter"

Edgar Allan Poe wrote three short stories, known as the Dupin trilogy, featuring the detective Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and “The Purloined Letter.” At the time of their publications, they were not widely received, however, Poe’s works now serve as one of the first blueprints for a successful murder-mystery. Not only that, but upon a close reading, Poe’s detective short stories highlight the fallacies of pre-war bureaucracy. Moreover, his Dupin trilogy can be read as a critique of bureaucracy in which the Prefect represents the failures of antebellum politics, while at the same time, Dupin’s methodology and analysis are a direct reflection of Poe’s own ideology. To best explicate Poe’s own philosophy, a look will first be taken to define his rationale in regards to the American justice system, and finally a look will be taken into the stories themselves, to define the parallels that the Dupin trilogy epitomize.

Edgar Allan Poe's Problem with the Justice System

Throughout his career, Poe was well-known for having a problem with the justice system, and democracy, in America. To begin with, Poe “was a controversial figure in the publishing world of antebellum America. His ability to spark controversy stemmed not only from an image concocted by his contemporary detractors but from the sharp tone and pointed content of the critical articles he wrote during his lifetime” (Hayes, 7). Poe was very clear in his beliefs that there was an intrinsic problem with the way the justice system operated. Not only that, but because he was placed in editorial positions, he was able to vent his philosophy upon his fellow, less politically passionate, writers.

Poe has been seen “as generally a captive figure obsessed by questions of production throughout his career [and his works can be read as excerpts into the] struggling misery of [his] existence” (Derrick). Indeed, Poe struggled, often as penniless and disillusioned as the characters within the short stories he penned.

Poe's Symbolism and Parallels to His Philosophies

Poe’s work formed “cycles of aspiration and disillusionment which…relate to the cultural drive for a paradisiacal fulfillment in the New World. His major theme then becomes the dispossession from Paradise, developed characteristically in the tone of a precious child who has been outrageously treated and craves special attention, if not revenge” (Sanford, 55). Moreover, Poe “never grew up emotionally, but re-enacted symbolically to the end of his life both the pain of his loss and his dream of being restored to childhood bliss” (55). Naturally, it is through Poe’s use of symbolism that an astute reader can draw direct parallels from his writings to his philosophies and beliefs in regards to the American justice system and the incompetence of bureaucracy.

Because of this symbolism, Poe seems much like a child in his writing, as “he explains to you how he solved a puzzle that nobody else on earth could solve, how he was able to extricate himself unaided by a superhuman feat of intuitive intellect from the maw of certain death, how his amateur sleuths outwit not only master criminals but the world’s best detectives” (Sanford, 55-56). And, it is this characteristic of Poe’s works that leads a reader directly from the story itself and into a satirical analysis of Poe’s deeper meaning. Poe, in his entire cannon of works, has never been so blatant in his stereotypes, and from this, it becomes clear that Poe is so passionate about the inadequacies of the police force that he cannot help himself but to express his philosophy in a satirical format.

Further, Poe’s standards were well-known, and those who knew him personally and professionally all “[agreed] that he was a most unjust critic and a bad fellow every way. The fact is, Poe made himself enemies all around by the cutting severity of his criticisms. Mr. Thomas Cottrell Clarke [said] that he started the ‘Stylus with Poe’ as its literary conductor, and the project was ruined by this intensity of his in reviewing the writings of others” (Sartain, 215). Poe was so passionate in his antebellum idealism that, perhaps even unintentionally, he pressed them without pause onto those unlucky enough to be around him—or worse yet, let their writings be seen by him.

Moreover, as if his positions of editorial authority weren’t enough to spout his ideals, Poe then chose to get his philosophy down in print, for all to see. To get the full effect on his view of the incompetent justice system, Poe chose the backdrop of a smarmy detective and an inept Prefect to literally tell the tale of how the police are so tight with their version of the law and its confines that they are literally unable to perform.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Now, before the methods of Dupin and the Prefect are explicated, a look will first be taken into the plots of Poe’s three detective stories. First, in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Dupin reads a newspaper article of the gruesome murder of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter. Because he has nothing better to do, and because the thought of making the Prefect look inept is delightful indeed, Dupin lends his services to the police to solve the crime. By reading the newspaper article alone, Dupin is able to solve the crime. Because witnesses claimed to have heard mysterious languages, Dupin adeptly figures that they were hearing an animal. He places an ad in the paper and a sailor responds. Then the story comes out. The sailor’s orangutan has escaped and came upon the two women, in an attempt to shave the mother, like it had seen its sailor do, it inadvertently kills her and the daughter, shoving the daughter into the chimney in guilty comeuppance for his actions. Case solved.

Ultimately, the Prefect is left to look the incompetent idiot, of which Dupin says, “I am satisfied with having defeated him in his own castle. Nevertheless, that he failed in the solution of this mystery, is by no means that matter for wonder which he supposes it; for, in truth, our friend the Prefect is somewhat too cunning to be profound” (Harrison, 409). Really, the Prefect never had a chance up against Dupin in the solving of this crime. Indeed, “only to those with powers of reasoning unequal to Dupin’s do the murders ultimately seem unreasonable, and to underscore the point, the tale ends with Dupin musing over the lesser powers of the Prefect of police, whom he overshadows with his spectacular solution to the murders” (Kennedy, 164). Poe paints the Prefect as the inept Police Chief, one who is so heavy with the ways of the law that he is incapable of solving crimes, and Dupin the detective mastermind, capable of solving any crime presented to him, without, really, doing any work at all.

The Mystery of Marie Roget

Subsequently, in “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” Dupin, again, is incited to solve a crime when he reads the accounts of it in the newspaper. Dupin’s ratiocination is at its best in this story as he uses his deductive reasoning to discover that there could only be one murderer, and that if the police are capable enough to find the boat which the body was dumped from, they will be able to find the murderer and solve the crime. In this, Dupin never breaks a sweat. His deductive reasoning is so sound and superhumanly fast that the crime seems like an afterthought for the short story.

The Purloined Letter

Finally, in “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin solves the crime of the missing letter by doing exactly as the police and the Prefect are unable to do because they believed the Minister to be clumsy fool because of his being a poet; but Dupin knows never to underestimate anyone. The Prefect tells Dupin the details of the missing letter, and Dupin, knowing who the crook must be, makes a visit to the Minister’s home, where, of course, Dupin spots the letter. It isn’t exactly as described, though Dupin knows it to immediately be the letter in question. To get his hands on the letter, he leaves behind his snuff box and returns to pick it up. The Minister is distracted by gun shots on the street and Dupin snatches up the letter, replacing it with a duplicate, and returns with it, triumphantly, to the shocked Prefect.

The ease with which Dupin is able to solve the crime can leave a reader just as shocked as the Prefect. It’s as if Poe wrote his stories with the intention of making Dupin so adept at his detective work that there, really, is no story, except the retelling of it to make Dupin look the master of his craft. And, perhaps, this was Poe’s very intention. It becomes clear, after reading the three detective stories, that Poe truly meant to get a message across. Indeed, the trilogy is virtually useless as an entertainment piece, and is quite literally a comment upon real events and real, incompetent, police forces. While Poe covers up the truth of his philosophy behind the guise of “fiction,” his message is still quite clear.

Dupin Vs. The Prefect - Distrust and Suspicion of Antebellum Politics

Based upon an understanding of the trilogy’s plots, Poe was very clear in what he wanted the Prefect, and the police in general, to represent. As has been discussed, Poe’s attitude towards antebellum politics was one of distrust and suspicion. Because of this philosophy, Poe expertly crafted the Prefect into the perfect satirical example of the faulty American justice system.

From the start, the Prefect seems a reasonable man. He appears every bit as a reader would expect of a police chief. However, it is in this that Poe makes his satirical move. The Prefect does his job perfectly, yet he is defined in this manner to show, precisely, how he cannot act in a rational manner because of his very nature to do his job perfectly. And, it is this flaw that Dupin utterly exposes.

Thus, to best define what separates the Prefect from Dupin, a look will now be taken into Dupin’s methodology, detection, and ratiocination, or ability to deductively reason. To begin with, in “‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ Dupin alludes to his linguistic prowess by suggesting how the complete story can be fashioned from a few fragments: ‘Upon these two words ['mon Dieu!']… I have mainly built my hopes of a full solution of the riddle’(P&T, 424). The same story illustrates his skill with words as he pens the advertisement, a tactic that, in luring the sailor to Dupin’s home, suggests his narrative control over the characters in his case” (Hayes, 134). Indeed, Poe has crafted Dupin into the type of character who has ultimate control of the crime at hand, at all times.

Dupin’s “feats of ratiocination… have entertained countless young readers in the past 150 years, and attracted enormous critical attention” (Werner). Ratiocination, coined by Poe himself, is essentially the art of using one’s own senses and intellect to solve a crime. In this, Dupin epitomizes the definition. His ratiocination is far beyond that of a normal man in that he hardly needs any evidence at all to solve a crime. Just give the man a few basic facts and he immediately knows who did it, and why. From this, it can be said that Dupin is not a believable character; however, that is not what he was meant to represent when Poe crafted him—Dupin, essentially, is meant to represent exactly what he does: the perfect detective.

Further, Dupin’s methodology is simply to read a newspaper article, glean the events that have transpired, and , quite instantaneously, solve the crime before the Prefect even has a chance to name a suspect. What makes Dupin markedly different from the Prefect is, realistically, his ability to think outside the box. Especially in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” it is this ability that leads Dupin to the conclusion that the murderer couldn’t possibly be human. Yet, the Prefect is unable to come to a similar conclusion because he must focus solely on the evidence—without having the ability that Dupin has to see what might not be there.

Once again, in “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin’s “management of the action… is most brilliantly rendered…where the detective contrives several crucial scenes. He designs the sensational moment when the letter is handed over to the Prefect, a narrative turn that stuns [everyone, including the reader]” (Hayes, 134-135). Moreover, “when Dupin returns the following morning to retrieve a snuff-box that he purposely left behind, his manipulation continues: the Minister is distracted by the disturbance Dupin has engineered in the street below, and Dupin pockets the purloined letter, leaving behind a facsimile. Thus the criminal, who imprisons the royal lady in his plot of blackmail and who, by anticipating the moves of the police, effectively absorbs them into his own counterplot, becomes ensnared in the more encompassing designs of Dupin” (135).

Dupin is in control at all moments in the trilogy. Even when it seems as if he might, for just one minute, have trouble—it turns out that he had everything well in hand the entire time. He is, as near as the reader is led to believe, quite incapable of making a mistake, and, even more, incapable of mistaking anything within the evidence of the crime. When Dupin reads through the events of the crime, he knows, without a doubt, what really happened.

And, based upon this complete competence, a reader is left to compare the Prefect, who “occupies only a small role in this tale, that of foil to Dupin’s genius. When Dupin solves the case, the prefect is both envious and further baffled. He probably only allowed Dupin access to the crime scene because the Prefect was convinced that Dupin could not solve the case and because the Prefect was desperate for help. The Prefect’s investigative abilities are too narrow because the police are unable to think beyond the details and facts supplied by the evidence. Dupin dismisses such an approach because, like most rationalists devoid of speculative insights, the policeman impaired his vision by holding the object too close” (Magistrale, 109). Even worse, the Prefect is unable to see his fatal flaw for what it is, making Dupin look all the more competent.

Furthermore, as if citing the fallacies of the justice system in fictional form were not enough, Poe delivers the final blow when he lets a reader glimpse the truly cavalier nature of Dupin in comparison to the utterly ineffectual nature of the Prefect. In the case of “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin “has recovered the stolen letter long before he reveals or explains the fact; one can imagine that the game he plays to surprise Prefect would today bring a review board hearing for a police detective and a punch in the nose for a private detective of a more homely professional stamp. A mark of Dupin's professional type is that he not only can risk the shock revelation but that he needs it to pursue the kind of occasional, windfall work he does” (Crisman). Clearly, Poe was crafting a story meant to imply this exact assumption—that the police in general need a slap and any competent detective could hand it to them. Further, Poe believed that his trilogy had.

Poe's Depiction of Dupin - the Best Detective

Poe crafted Dupin into his idyllic correction of the American justice system. Born on the wind of necessity, Poe “secured the original patent” (Orel, 395) on the first detective series. In his attempt to exploit and comment upon antebellum politics, he expertly crafted the perfect detective and named him Dupin—as in ability to dupe the police, perhaps?

If anything, Poe created Dupin into the kind of man he believed all detectives should be, complete with the ability to solve every crime with ease, leaving the ineffectual and insipid police force in his wake. With that ideal, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin was born—the “man to whom observation had become a species of necessity” (Orel, 395). Dupin was also a man who “took nothing for granted, distrusting newspaper accounts of a crime with a special vehemence, and adopted as a cardinal principle that one should not ask ‘what has occurred,’ so much as ‘what has occurred that has never occurred before’” (Orel, 396). And, it is this nature that separates Dupin from the Prefect, for, without this inherent nature, Dupin would not have been able to do the seemingly impossible—like quickly deducing that the murderer in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was an orangutan.

Poe’s main plot device is that “the criminal is the antagonist, who in making mystery obstructs the formation of a rounded narrative, and the detective is the hero, who in a skilled act of [ratiocination] uncovers what happened and devises the completed narrative of explanation. Dupin defeats the criminal, reducing him to a character inhabiting the detective's plot, and comforts us, seeming to validate our enterprise of reading as he guides us to a position of understanding” (Hayes, 135). But the Dupin trilogy is much more than that. Poe uses Dupin to encompass his entire philosophy on the fallacies of American bureaucracy.

Further, “it is also characteristic of Dupin…whose triumphs over the police Prefect demonstrate the superiority of Poe's ratiocinative poetics over empiricism” (Kennedy, 94). Which is ultimately, exactly what Poe meant to achieve when he transformed his philosophies into a satirical detective trilogy.

Poe’s philosophies were so strong that what he created has done much more than, even, tell his message. Indeed, “Dupin is little remembered today, but his spirit lives on in the most famous and successful of consulting detectives, Sherlock Holmes. As Watson was to remark ‘You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin.’ Dupin and Edgar Allan Poe were to strongly influence Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the creation of Sherlock Holmes” (Parkins). Even more, Poe gives Dupin detective tricks that “are worthy of most of the tricks that Conan Doyle devised later in the century” (Orel, 396). The truth is that Poe did much more than he thought when he wrote his detective trilogy to expose corrupt politics. Instead, he unintentionally crafted the blueprint for modern detective stories and exemplified the art of being a competent and intelligent crime solver.

Poe's Influence on Crime Writers

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle “once said that Edgar Allan Poe’s stories were ‘a model for all time.’ Just how much Doyle relied on Poe’s model when he developed his own contribution to detective, crime, and murder mystery books and stories can readily be seen when one examines the internal evidence of the stories both men wrote” (Thomas). Further, Poe’s influence upon crime writers of the future was so profound that he literally created a new genre for the reading masses.

This influence can be seen very clearly in one example, where “Poe’s detective Dupin employed an agent to create a diversion so his villain would be distracted momentarily, providing Dupin an opportunity to snatch a letter and replace it with a facsimile, this event happened ‘off stage,’ so to speak.” (Thomas). Conan Doyle employs this exact same art of diversion in many of his tales, except he moves the action to the stage, giving the reader a full view of the events as they transpire. Perhaps, if Poe had real interest in the genre that he was producing, he would have done the same, but to compare the two it marks an interesting distinction in the evolution of Poe’s creation.

Another influential example occurs in “‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ [where Sherlock] Holmes attempts to retrieve a photograph for his client, the King of Bohemia. When [Conan] Doyle created the following scene, he avoided merely duplicating the incident verbatim from Poe. Rather than have Holmes take a coveted item and replace it with a facsimile (as Dupin does in ‘The Purloined Letter’), Holmes merely wanted to know where it was so he could return later and retrieve it” (Thomas).

In this way, Conan Doyle does not literally copy the work of Poe, but he uses what his successor wrote to make a similar caper for his detective. Literary teachers often cite that imitation (of course, not plagiarism) is the sincerest form of flattery. Indeed, there is even a writing book entitled The Sincerest Form by Nicholas Delbanco which illustrates the fine art of taking what another has written and imitating their style to better perfect a writer’s own. Thus, while Poe merely meant to make a political statement with his three detective works, what he also managed to accomplish for the world of writing deserves credence as well.

Final Thoughts

Edgar Allan Poe wrote three short stories, known as the Dupin trilogy, featuring the detective Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and “The Purloined Letter.” Upon a close reading, Poe’s detective short stories highlight the fallacies of his antebellum philosophies. Moreover, his Dupin trilogy can be read as a literal critique of bureaucracy in which the Prefect represents the failures of antebellum politics, while at the same time, Dupin’s methodology and analysis are a direct reflection of Poe’s own ideology. Poe’s use of the character Dupin to epitomize the ultimate detective and pinpoint the fallacies of the police force serve as a direct parallel to Poe’s own ideology that that the American justice system was deeply flawed.

References

Crisman, William. “Poe’s Dupin as Professional: the Dupin Stories as Serial Text.” Studies in American Fiction 23:2. (1995): 215+

Delbanco, Nicholas. The Sincerest Form: Writing Fiction by Imitation. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2004.

Derrick, Scott S. “Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America.” Journal of Southern History, 67:3. (2001): 657.

Harrison, James A. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Vol. 6. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1902.

Hayes, Kevin J. The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Kennedy, Gerald and Liliane Weissberg. Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.

Magistrale, Tony. Student Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Orel, Harold. “The American Detective-Hero.” Journal of Popular Culture, 2:3. (Winter 1968): 395-403.

Parkins, Keith. “Edgar Allan Poe.” July 1999. Online Edgar Allan Poe Resource. 12 June 2009 < http://home.clara.net/heureka/art/poe.htm>

Poe, Edgar A. “Library Shelf: The Purloined Letter.” The Chatauquan; A Weekly Newsmagazine (1880-1914) 1 Feb. 1908: 415-427. American Periodicals Series Online. ProQuest. University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana Library. 5 June, 2009.

-----. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine (1841-1842) 1 Apr. 1841: 166. American Periodicals Series Online. ProQuest. University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana Library. 5 June, 2009.

-----. “The Mystery of Marie Roget: A Sequel to ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’” The Ladies’ Companion, a Monthly Magazine; Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts (1834-1843) 1 Dec. 1842: 93. American Periodicals Series Online. ProQuest. University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana Library. 5 June, 2009.

Sanford, Charles L. “Edgar Allan Poe: A Blight Upon the Landscape.” American Quarterly, 20:1. (Spring 1968): 54-66.

Sartain, John. The Reminisces of a Very Old Man 1808-1897. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1899.

Thomas, Drew. “Edgar Allan Poe: A Model for All Time.” 2000. Online Edgar Allan Poe Resource. 12 June 2009 < http://www.worlds-best-detective-crime-and-murder-mystery-books.com/poeinfluenceondoyle01-article.html>

Werner, James V. “The Detective Gaze: Edgar A. Poe, the Flaneur, and the Physiognomy of Crime.” ATQ 15:1. (2001): 5.

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    • pameladragonborn profile image
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      Pam McElprang 2 years ago from somewhere in the mountains of Idaho

      Thank you! I'm a huge fan of Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so this was a great topic to dig in to for me

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      This was a good introduction for me to the detective works of Poe. I remember the name Dupin, but I don't recall having actually read the stories. English class was a long time ago!

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