No, the first murder mystery story was not written by Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The first fictional detective (as the character archetype we know today) was C. Auguste Dupin, created by Edgar Allen Poe. Dupin was on the scene before Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot: Poe died before Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were even born. (It should be noted that there is a wonderful legend that the word "detective" wasn't around until Poe wrote his murder mystery. This lovely snippet is, dashing our hopes, untrue. Merriam-Webster cites the first use of the word "detective" in 1732.)
Dupin's first appearance is in Poe's story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Although Poe's work may be the first detective story, that doesn't make it the best. In fact, this murder mystery is wonderfully ridiculous.
Spoilers ahead. You can read the story or watch the movie adaptation on Amazon for $2.99. The 1932 movie is rated 6.5 out of 10 on IMBD, so view at your own peril. Yet to the producer's credit, the movie poster is sensational. This terrifying green person, who looks like a headmistress from the evil part of Mars, should be a required character in all murder mysteries. However, green people alone are unable to hold up a story. The best part of any mystery is the reveal.
"The butler did it!" is the cliché cry of the detective when she solves the murder. She points her finger at the killer, shouts "Aha! You have been found out!" and everybody goes home satisfied. People across the mystery cannon have been murdered by lovers, ex-lovers, would-be-lovers, maniacs, rivals, son-in-laws, mother-in-laws, maids, butlers, cooks, stable-boys, and even by accident (although who wants to read that mystery, really). Edgar Allen Poe takes, how shall we say, a different approach. His culprit is an orangutan who misunderstands the human concept of shaving.
Although Poe's killer is, well, unusual, his take on solving his murder mystery is right on par with our detectives of today. Poe describes "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" as one of his "tales of ratiocination:" an academic phrase meaning, "a story with logic in it." We all know the murder mystery formula: Crime tape is strung up. Clues are collected. Witnesses interrogated. The dashing detective pieces together the killer's means, motive, and opportunity (the three key parts of any good mystery). We adore the intricate twists and turns, and we applaud the solution.
Edgar Allen Poe's detective Dupin analytically deduces every event: like Spock if his logic bounded from one miscellaneous fact to the next. Dupin is accompanied by the unnamed narrator, who is in essence a Watson prototype. One scene captures perfectly the dynamic between the detective and his companion. In it, Dupin explains precisely why the narrator is thinking what he is thinking. Early-model Watson begins:
“Tell me, for Heaven’s sake,” I exclaimed, “the method–-if method there is–-by which you have been enabled to fathom my soul in this matter.”
There was not a particle of charlatanerie about Dupin. “I will explain,” he said, “and that you may comprehend all clearly, we will first retrace the course of your meditations, from the moment in which I spoke to you until that of the rencontre with the fruiterer in question. The larger links of the chain run thus-–Chantilly, Orion, Dr. Nichols, Epicurus, Stereotomy*, the street stones, the fruiterer.”
Elementary, my dear Watson.
Many contemporary murder mystery stories end with the detective revealing WhoDunIt before the audience understands the significance of the evidence. In "The Murders at the Rue Morgue," an old woman and her daughter have been brutally murdered. There are numerous suspects, but the evidence doesn't quite add up. Our dumbfounded narrator is only just beginning to piece together the clues, but detective Dupin has already solved the murder. Stumbling about the crime scene, our narrator finds an integral clue:
“Dupin!” I said, completely unnerved; “this hair is most unusual–-this is no human hair.”
Clueless narrator, of course the hair is not human. Why on earth has it taken you so long to realize this crucial fact? Dupin, to our narrator's astonishment, leads him clue by clue to the correct conclusion: the orangutan did it. (Or an "Ourang-Outang" as Poe calls it.) The only question that remains is, how?
To test his theory, Dupin lures the owner of the orangutan, a sailor, to his home by putting a notice in the paper. The notice reads that Dupin has caught the animal and wishes to return it to its owner. The confounded narrator asks, why a sailor? Dupin explains to our dear narrator: the ribbon found at the crime scene is obviously one that sailors commonly wear to tie their hair, of course.
As Dupin expected, the sailor shows up and explains that his orangutan had taken up shaving: "Razor in hand, and fully lathered, it was sitting before a looking-glass, attempting the operation of shaving, in which it had no doubt previously watched its master through the keyhole of the closet." The very definition of aping.
The story continues when the orangutan escapes. The animal breaks into the victims' apartment, and "flourishing the razor about her face, in imitation of the motions of a barber," murders the two women. The sailor, who was chasing the orangutan, witnesses the entire event. He immediately turns heel and runs back home, pretending nothing happened. Orangutan who? Which neighbor told you they heard an orangutan upstairs? I don't even know what an orangutan looks like.
Dupin explains the solution to the murder mystery to a baffled Prefect of Police, who agrees that it wasn't anyone's fault if you look at it a certain way. (Perhaps while cocking your head to one side and squinting.) The orangutan is subsequently caught and sold to a zoo. No one goes to prison. The story ends with a highbrow Latin quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's 1761 novel Julie, or the New Heloise: "de nier ce qui est, et d’expliquer ce qui n’est pas." This translates to "to deny what is, and to explain what is not," chiding those who follow red herrings to misguided solutions.
Edgar Allen Poe's murder mystery may be rough around the edges, but it's a fun ride. Poe is a talented writer. He created enduring characters that influenced the best writers in the last hundred years. "The Murders at the Rue Morgue" is lovingly preposterous, and it deserves its place as the first murder mystery ever written. ▲
*"a term very affectedly applied to this species of pavement"