Poe’s Invention of the Detective Story: Why The Orang-Utan Did It

So I recently read an article (‘Nature’s Book: The Language of Science in the American Renaissance’ by David Van Leer, in Cunningham and Jardine (eds), Romanticism and the Sciences, 1990) which in part addressed the relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and natural science. And this got me thinking about ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’. As every schoolboy knows, it is in this story that a) Poe invented modern detective fiction, and b) the murder – the first in modern detective fiction, let’s just dwell on this for emphasis – is committed by an orang-utan. And the question that I’m particularly interested in is: why an orang-utan? Why is it that here, at the birth of one of the most fertile and fascinating forms of genre fiction, did Poe choose to have a psychotic ape do the killing? And I think it is by examining Poe’s – and the detective story more generally’s – relationship with/attitude towards the discourse surrounding Galilean natural science, i.e. the science that mathematises nature, that we can find a satisfactory solution to this mystery.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, for those who aren’t familiar, takes place in Paris, and concerns the ‘detective’ (he’s not actually a detective, he’s a rather scruffy bookish fellow of some sort of lapsed noble origin who the narrator, apparently Poe himself, meets in an “obscure library” in Montmarte) C. Auguste Dupin. Dupin is possessed of a “peculiar analytic ability” much like that of Sherlock Holmes: in fact, since the story is narrated by someone (the fictionalised Poe) who lives with him, always impressed at his abilities, and since the character is similarly ‘rational’, ‘unemotional’, detached from the rest of humanity, always outsmarting the police etc it is pretty much clear that Arthur Conan Doyle just xeroxed the character and transferred him to London.

The murders themselves are of a mother and daughter, who have been brutally killed in their apartments, in a crime of no apparent motive: the mother has had her throat cut and is found on the ground outside (the head falls off when they try to lift it) and the daughter is strangled and stuffed in the chimney; a large sum of money has been left in the house. At the time of the murder, two voices were heard: one gruff, of a Frenchman, saying words suggesting astonishment; another shrill and incomprehensible, it is always presented by the witnesses (the accounts are gone through one-by-one, ‘from the newspaper’) as being of a foreigner, though never a foreigner whose language they speak.

The police (being the police) don’t seem to have a clue, but anyway they arrest a clerk named Adolphe Le Bon, who is apparently a friend of Dupin’s. So he resolves to work out using his analytical abilities what really happened. After a lengthy exposition, he concludes (based in part of the size of the hands needed to produce the marks on the daughter’s neck) that the crime must have been committed by an orang-utan, and places an advert in the newspaper claiming to have caught an escaped orang-utan. When the owner shows up, his testimony confirms Dupin’s reasoning: he is a sailor who has brought the ape back from a voyage to Borneo, hoping to sell it. The sailor tells of how he returned home the night of the murders to find the ape escaped from his cage, lathered up in shaving foam, preparing to shave (in imitation of his owner). Upon being discovered, the orang-utan escapes out the window, razor still in hand, and finds his way to the house of the murders. The sailor, chasing the orang-utan, climbs up the lightning-rod and sees the ape kill the women: the ape kills the mother in the act of trying to imitate a barber, and then kills the daughter apparently to cover up the accident.

The Detective as Scientist

In detective stories, what is it that detectives do? They describe reality. Detective stories are about interpretation. We are presented with a mystery. We can (usually) never solve this mystery ourselves (sometimes you’re meant to be able to, but we’ll leave that aside because I think it’s kind of bullshitty). The detective appears (sometimes he is already there, Poirot for example is almost always near the scene of the crime, this is very suspicious). Eventually, the detective pronounces his exposition, interpreting reality via whatever method (sometimes truly analytical, sometimes really just intuitive) and giving us the correct solution, which we know to be correct (usually it draws out a confession). It is comforting for us, because all the events fit together neatly into a ‘symbol’ (see previous post) and we know that justice is done (even if it is sometimes done to a character we like, although more usually it is done to someone totally anonymous).

(it is of course interesting to me that in my beloved Tintin books, Tintin the ‘reporter’ – a reporter, indeed, who never files any copy – is often compared by characters to Sherlock Holmes, but himself is never in the powerful epistemic position of the detective, rather he achieves his victories through acting rather than pronouncing)

Now, who else describes reality? In the real world, we are always looking to the scientist. Indeed, just as in the detective story we are comforted by the detective coming to an ‘objective’ reconstruction of events, so in our everyday existence we are comforted by the scientist being able to describe the world in an ‘objective’ way. The appeal of the detective story is, I would posit, very much a product of a scientised modernity, as these stories in some way allegorise the process of scientific investigation.

Poe’s Critique of Science

This is why it is so interesting to examine Poe’s attitude towards natural science. The general thrust of the Van Leer article is that: for Poe, science was just a particular form of discourse, with truth held to consist in coherence with the norms of the discourse-set rather than any sort of correspondance to an outlying reality. Insofar as this is relevant to Poe’s detective fiction, Van Leer says that Poe, certainly compared to later detective writers “emphasizes the logical, even mechanical, nature of detection,” though with the “hyper-rational language” this entails being (as Poe of course intends) a mere “pose”:

“The success of these stories depends less on their content than on the form in which they present it, not on what they deduce but on their faith in logical analysis itself. As Poe admits to a friend, ‘their method and air of method’ make them seem more ingenious than they really are: ‘where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself (the author) have woven for the express purpose of unravelling?’”

There is certainly something to this idea that in his stories Poe emphasizes the ‘mechanical’ nature of detection via ratiocination. Aside from the mind-numbingly dry ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’, which holds all the romance and thrill of the average article of ‘analytic philosophy’, and in which Poe talks of method of detection as involving “the Calculus of Probabilities” which is “in its essence, purely mathematical,” there is a particular scene early on in ‘Rue Morgue’ where Poe describes himself and Dupin taking a walk together during the course of which, fifteen minutes after they had last conversed, Dupin replies out loud to the exact remark that Poe had come to think in his head. Poe is fascinated by this, and Dupin describes the process by which he had come to realise he would be thinking what he was, saying that “it was the fruiterer, who [brought you to the conclusion you did that I replied to]”: an encounter with a fruiterer who tripped Poe up begins, for Dupin, an apparently unavoidable causal sequence that unfolds mechanistically as they stroll through Paris together. Spinoza, eat your heart out.

However, I find it odd that, in an article about Poe and natural science, Van Leer fails to give more mention to ‘The Purloined Letter’. This, the third, final, and by far best-written of the Dupin stories, concerns a letter stolen from an important woman by a scheming minister who is using it to blackmail her: the police have searched his apartments up and down looking for the letter, but they cannot find it; Dupin works out that it is hidden in plain sight.

It is this story, of all the Dupin stories, that presents Poe’s critique of natural science in I think the clearest way. The policeman in it, Monsieur G-, is a rather common-sensically minded person (of the sort who would nowadays without any further reflection lazily identify the mind with the brain, or think a science degree was worthier than one in the humanities). At one point he remarks (of the thieving minister) that he is:

“Not altogether a fool… but then he’s a poet, which I take to be only one remove from a fool.”

(Dupin, following this, humours him, but later explicitly disagrees, to Poe)

The police in the story are portrayed as being unthinkingly mechanistic in their reasoning. Believing the letter to be in the minister’s apartments somewhere, they go through them methodically with a mechanical thoroughness, searching in every conceivable hiding-place, even unscrewing the tops of tables to see if it is rolled-up in a whole drilled in one of the table legs (or similar). But to no avail. Dupin however finds the letter by realising it has not really been hidden at all: it has simply been turned inside-out and given a different seal, and is in the minister’s card-rack.

The police are looking for what we might call a ‘deep’ solution to the problem: and, so convinced they are that there must be such depth involved, they fail to bother to look at the surface-level phenomena at all. This is point number one about natural science: science, in its quest for explanations, ends up forgetting the human-level, ‘phenomenological’ elements of experienced reality (see eliminativists in the philosophy of mind for a particularly striking example, thinkers – thinkers! – who deny the existence of consciousness, as being a mere fiction).

As far as their quest for depth goes, Dupin cannot fault the police: “the measures adopted were not only the best of their kind, but carried out to the absolute perfection. Had the letter been deposited within the range of their search, these fellows would, beyond a question, have found it.” But the reason they failed was, Dupin makes clear, because of the sort of man they were dealing with.

The minister, you see, is not just a poet (which is the reason the police suppose him to be a fool), but also a mathematician. This is what makes him such a sophisticated reasoner. “As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all, and thus would have been at the mercy of the prefect.” Arguing for this, Dupin then proceeds to embark on a lengthy rant against the ‘algebraists’ who have “insinuated the term ‘analysis’ into application to algebra.” This is wrong because “mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth,” as the algebraists misakenly suppose. They are, rather, idealisations: Poe does not use the exact term himself, but his polemic against the algebraists is basically identical to Husserl’s critique of Galilean natural science (the natural science that mathematizes nature and tells you that mathematics is describing nature in all its complexity) in The Crisis of European Sciences, and this is Husserl’s gloss on it.

This is what Poe thinks good science consists in: the coincidence of poetry and analysis. In this sense, he is a firmly ‘Romantic scientist’: that is, Poe’s attitude towards science is in the tradition of the Naturphilosophie of Friedrich Schelling, which most of the articles in the Cunningham and Jardine collection in which Van Leer’s article is found directly relate to. Naturphilosophie involves an organicist view of reality which many find metaphysically indefeasible but, more interestingly, it implies a view of nature in which there is no Cartesian chasm between ‘mind’ and ‘body’: value is something that inheres in the world, an object for science. Imagination and poetry are, for the Naturphilosophen, an important part of doing science well.

According to Van Leer, the universe was for Poe ‘the plot of God’, and so the investigation of such is always in some sense literary: “in making literature an imperfect form of natural history, [Poe] makes science a perfect form of storytelling.” Hence, poetic faculties are needed to do science well. And how better to illustrate this by inventing a properly scientific form of literature? Namely: the ‘tale of ratiocination’, the detective story.

Why Did the Orang-Utan Do it?

In short, the orang-utan did it because of Poe’s particular critique of natural science. There is no way that anyone could get to the conclusion that an orang-utan was responsible via a ‘mathematical’ sort of reasoning alone. Rather, a leap of imagination is required. This is what Poe is concerned to suggest: an orang-utan has, I think, been chosen because it is a totally alien element (even coming, literally, from about as far abroad as it is possible to imagine) that seems completely ridiculous, even after it is explained how it got there (the orang-utan trying to shave, and acting as a barber in committing the murder).

Science for Poe is not an objective, value-free task (Dupin helps Le Bon because he is his friend; he is motivated to steal the letter from the minister because he once did him some unspecified wrong), and mathematical science is (as I have noted above) a mere idealisation. But Poe is, as Van Leer is keen to emphasise in his article (and like Husserl in his Crisis), not ‘anti-science’. After all, Dupin invariably finds the right answer (his findings are not confirmed in ‘Marie Roget’, but then his theory is never investigated in the real-world there). It is just that he does this with a method that is, in the properly Romantic holistic, not reductionist: the reductionist, seeking to exclude aspects of experience (i.e. value experience, human psychology, the imagination) rather than incorporate them, would never have thought of an orang-utan doing it, and would never have figured out where the letter was. In Poe’s detective novels he thus presents us with a different, (I would say) better way of ‘doing science’. And he illustrates this via an orang-utan doing the murders in the first-ever detective story.

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