A gruesome and sensational description of a murder–or the invention of an entire genre of literature?

“Of Madame L’Espanaye no traces were here seen; but an unusual quantity of soot being observed in the fire-place, a search was made in the chimney, and (horrible to relate!) the corpse of the daughter, head downward, was dragged therefrom; it having been thus forced up the narrow aperture for a considerable distance. The body was quite warm. Upon examining it, many excoriations were perceived, no doubt occasioned by the violence with which it had been thrust up and disengaged. Upon the face were many severe scratches, and, upon the throat, dark bruises, and deep indentations of finger nails, as if the deceased had been throttled to death.” 

–from ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841)

With the publication of this short story in Graham’s Magazine, Poe unleashed upon the world a whole new novelty–a whole new realm of art and fiction: the literary detective, as well as ideas and practices extending far beyond fiction:

  • The science of ratiocination, and the birth of the modern detective–in fact and in fiction
  • The ‘closed room’ mystery; the bumbling apprentice; incompetent police.
  • The trope of the eccentric but brilliant detective. In this case, C. Auguste Dipun, who inspired the creation of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.
  • Another example of Poe’s aesthetic notion that “the most poetical thing in the world is the death of a beautiful woman.” Alfred Hitchcock, a century later, would take this notion to outrageous extremes. 

Despite this lurid description of the poor woman stuffed up a chimney, this story (and the two other C. Auguste Dupin mysteries) concern themselves mainly with the intellectual exercise of unraveling a mystery.   An entire portion of the publishing industry has thrived on this simple notion for decades.   

In 1841, Poe was paid the not inconsiderable sum of $56 for this gruesome but intellectually stimulating yarn.  

The image is from the 1932 film Murders in the Rue Morgue, which had virtually nothing to do, plot-wise, with Poe’s story. But it did have Bela Lugosi, an ape, and the beautiful actress Sidney Fox.

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