Blog: The First Detective

WideEyedStudiosHedgerowChristieFinalHigh-181Edgar Allan Poe is generally accepted to be the author of the first fictional detective, for his trilogy of short stories featuring Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin.  Written before the word detective entered into the dictionary, Poe’s Dupin and the stories he was involved in set the framework for the entire genre of detective literature that would follow, inspiring characters and plots in both Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels as well as Agatha Christie’s writings on Hercule Poirot.  

Dupin was featured in three different short stories, each involving a serious crime to be solved.  The first, The Murders in the Rue Morgue involved the double murder of a mother and daughter.  The second, The Mystery of Marie Roget, a fictionalized investigation based off the very real murder of Mary Rogers, whose corpse was found floating in the Hudson River in 1841, as well as the final installation, The Purloined Letter, a blackmailing case where the compromising contents of a stolen letter are used against the queen of France.

The inspiration for Dupin is said to have come from the French criminal-turned-detective François Vidocq, who helped to establish the Sûreté nationale, the national police force of France.  In turn, Dupin went on to inspire the trope of the gentleman detective, the upper-class, well-educated eccentric who favors the quiet solitude of the English country.  The stories followed the format that would later be used throughout the Golden Age of Detective Fiction – a story told about the detective by a close friend/narrator, about the eccentric detective overcoming the bumbling constabulary to solve a crime that has stumped the police, analyzing facts throughout the story only to have a big reveal scene at the narrative’s conclusion.  Dupin’s narratives also included the first locked-room mystery in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, where the culprit has left behind what appears to be a perfectly locked and sealed crime scene, making it difficult to ascertain how the culprit entered and left, as well as the first known account of a murder mystery detective story based on an actual crime in  The Mystery of Marie Roget.

The character of Dupin hails from a wealthy, gentlemanly background, but has been reduced to more modest means, forgoing anything he considers non-essentials apart from an extensive collection of books.  He became acquainted with the narrator when the two were both independently searching for a “rare and very remarkable volume” in an obscure library, moving into a shared apartment shortly after.

Poe described Dupin’s methods as “ratiocination”, a form of reasoning where the detective solves a crime by putting himself into the mind of the culprit in order to figure out the exact thought process of the criminal and thereby figure out each step of the crime.  He combines his superior logic with his creative mind in order to pinpoint the “unintended”, paying specific attention to hesitation, eagerness, and word choice when investigating suspects and witnesses.  Dupin’s methods also emphasizes the importance of reading and writing, with many of his clues coming from newspaper reports or reports written by the Prefect.

Without Dupin, detective literature as we know it today would not exist.  On top of inspiring Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, their respective authors wrote references into their works, giving a polite tip of the hat to the character that started it all.  Sherlock at one point mentions Dupin as an inferior intellect to his own, and criticizes Dupin’s method of “breaking in on his friend’s thoughts with an apropos remark” despite the fact that Holmes himself later uses the very same technique.  In addition to that, in Christie’s Poirot novels, the detective at one point pens a book about Edgar Allan Poe.  Dupin also received two film adaptations in the 1940s, though his name was changed from Auguste to Pierre, in Universal Pictures’ Mystery in the Rue Morgue and The Mystery of Marie Roget.  He appears as a character or reference in comics, such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Batman, as well as several novels about mysteries or Edgar Allan Poe, often ending up to be the author in disguise.