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Without Edgar Allan Poe, We Wouldn’t Have Sherlock Holmes

C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s main character, was the first genius detective

This illustration from The Murders in the Rue Morgue portrays Dupin, the first literary 'genius detective,' questioning a suspect. (Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

When Edgar Allan Poe first introduced the world to C. Auguste Dupin, he hit on a winning formula.

Dupin was Sherlock Holmes before Sherlock Holmes, a genius detective who first appeared in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” first published on this day in 1841. In that story, the first locked-room mystery, two women are dead and only a bloody straight razor, two bags of gold coins and some tufts of hair are found in the room with their bodies. The game's afoot, as Holmes might say (Poe didn't give Dupin a nifty catchphrase). 

Though the roots of the detective story go as far back as Shakespeare, write historians Helena Marković and Biliana Oklopčić, Poe’s tales of rational crime-solving created a genre. His stories, they write, mix crime with a detective narrative that revolves around solving the puzzle of the “whodunit,” inviting readers to try to solve the puzzle too.

The key figure in such a story, then, is the detective. Poe’s detective, who also appears in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” and “The Purloined Letter,” set the stage for that character. Dupin is a gentleman of leisure who has no need to work and instead keeps himself occupied by using “analysis” to help the real police solve crimes. The real police are, of course, absolutely incompetent, like Inspector Lestrade and Scotland Yard are to Holmes.

Like his literary descendant, Dupin smokes a meerschaum pipe and is generally eccentric. He’s also unnaturally smart and rational, a kind of superhero who uses powers of thinking to accomplish great feats of crime-solving. And the story's narrator, who is literally following the detective around, is his roommate. Dupin’s roommate, unlike John Watson, remains a nameless “I” throughout the three stories, although he is equally everyday.

In the Dupin tales, Poe introduced a number of elements, like the friendly narrator, that would remain common to detective stories, write Marković and Oklopčić. “The elements Poe invented, such as the reclusive genius detective, his ‘ordinary’ helper, the impossible crime, the incompetent police force, the armchair detection, the locked room mystery, etc., have become firmly embedded in most mystery novels of today,” the historians write. 

Even Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock, had to acknowledge Poe's influence. "Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?" he wrote.

Poe’s formula appealed in the nineteenth century because detective stories promised that reasoning could hold the answer to every question. At the same time, with spooky overtones, they appealed to nineteenth century readers' preoccupations with the occult.

The detective story, writes Ben MacIntyre for The Times of London, was particularly appealing because it promised that “intellect will triumph, the crook will be confounded by the rational sleuth, science will track down the malefactors and allow honest souls to sleep at night.” At the same time, MacIntyre writes, nineteenth century anxieties about the Industrial Revolution and new ways of living supported the idea that evil was anonymous and everywhere. These two instincts—"faith in reason and mistrust of appearance"—are what made Victorians love detective stories, a love that endures today.

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