INTRODUCTION by Matthew Pearl





APPENDIX The Earliest Detectives: Zadig, Vidocq, and Jimmy Buckhorn

Excerpt from Zadig

Excerpt from Memoirs of Vidocq

Excerpt from Tales and Sketches


About the Author

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, USA, in 1809. Poet, short story writer, editor and critic, he is best known for his macabre tales and as the progenitor of the detective story. He died in 1849, in mysterious circumstances, at the age of forty.


The Murders in
the Rue Morgue

The Dupin Tales

Matthew Pearl



EDGAR ALLAN POE was born in 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of traveling actors. His father abandoned the family a short time later, and his mother died when Poe was two. Separated from his brother and sister, Poe was taken in by John Allan, a Virginia tobacco farmer. He attended the University of Virginia, distinguishing himself as a student but losing large sums of money at gambling; following a quarrel with his foster father, he tried a military career (in the army and then at West Point), and published his first volume of poetry, Tamer-lane and Other Poems (1827). Poe lived in Baltimore with his aunt and her eight-year-old daughter, Virginia. He continued to write fiction, and in 1833 he won a fifty-dollar prize for “MS. Found in a Bottle.” Two years later, he began his association with The Southern Literary Messenger, to which, in addition to stories, he contributed scores of critical reviews, whose frequent acerbity and slashing wit brought a new rigor to the hitherto self-congratulatory American literary scene. Around this time, Poe married his cousin Virginia, who was then thirteen. Poor and frequently at odds with editors, Poe moved his family from Richmond to New York to Philadelphia and then back to New York. Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, containing such stories as “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “William Wilson,” was published in 1839.

In the last decade of his life, despite poverty and illness, and the physical decline of Virginia, Poe remained feverishly prolific. Lecturing on American literature, concocting hoaxes and cryptograms, attempting to launch magazines, churning out reviews, and experimenting with a variety of fictional genres including the detective story, which he virtually invented with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), he achieved his widest recognition with the publication of “The Raven” in 1845. The poem’s instant popularity gave him new visibility in literary circles, but his personal situation remained tenuous, aggravated by his penchant for literary warfare—he accused Longfellow of plagiarism—and a high-profile libel suit. Following Virginia’s death in 1847, he was less productive, devoting his energies to Eureka, an idiosyncratic mixture of criticism, metaphysics, and cosmological speculation. He was found semiconscious in a Baltimore tavern and died on October 7, 1849. His last poems, posthumously published, were “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee.” Poe’s reputation suffered for years from charges of immorality and drunkenness; but through a series of ardent defenders in America and abroad that included Charles Baudelaire, he became a major influence on modern writing and culture.


Matthew Pearl

UNIQUE, INIMITABLE, ORIGINAL: This is how Edgar Allan Poe aficionados describe the author of “The Raven” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Poe always manages to surprise. Yet when readers discover Poe’s detective tales they are also surprised in a different way, not by how distinctively Poesque they are but by how much in those stories—incompetent police, locked rooms where murders occur, an eccentric genius investigator, a naïve but forthright narrator—has since become storytelling staples.

These narrative elements came together with Poe, and even now, more than 160 years after the Dupin tales first appeared, we can still sense him in the act of originating a new format and approach. Poe was very conscious and savvy about carving out original spaces (though his savvy did not usually extend to capitalizing financially on his originality). He recognized that his “tales of ratiocination,” which were among the widest read of his stories in his day, owed their popularity to “being something in a new key.”1 The author was quite right: His trilogy of stories featuring the analytical or “ratiocinative” C. Auguste Dupin—consisting of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” and “The Purloined Letter”—almost single-handedly gave rise to the genres of mystery and detective fiction.

Readers today still send letters to Sherlock Holmes, a literary descendant of Dupin, as if the character were a real person; feeling a personal acquaintance with Poe’s detective, however, is harder, and I imagine not many postcards are sent to Dupin’s address in the Faubourg St. Germain. The sparse details on Dupin’s background and his interior life that can be found in the stories are barely sufficient to write the briefest encyclopedia entry on him. And what does Dupin look like? Illustrations differ widely, because Poe never quite tells us. (By contrast, we all could pick the aquiline profile of Holmes out of a lineup.)

Dupin’s character has also been blurred by close association with Poe himself. Contemporary reviewers often attributed Dupin’s genius in reasoning and deduction to Poe rather than to Dupin. French novelist Alexandre Dumas went further when he began writing about an imagined meeting with Poe set in 1832 Paris. Here Dumas describes his “friend” Poe (whom he had never actually met):

I could not help remarking with wonder and admiration … the extraordinary faculty of analysis exhibited by [Poe].… He made no secret of the enjoyment he derived from it, and would remark, with a smile of proud satisfaction, that for him every man had an open window where his heart was.

This “Poe” sounds familiar—it is lifted from Poe’s description of Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” which reads, “most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms.” It is revealing that Dumas’s unpublished fragment with its Poe-Dupin fantasy character was suspected to be a true account when rediscovered in 1929.2

Dupin must have been a genuinely strange character for Poe’s contemporaries to absorb. The first American bureau of detectives, a primitive organization by today’s standards, was established in Boston in 1846, five years after the publication of the first Dupin tale. Interestingly, for lack of better context, Poe’s contemporaries frequently compared Dupin’s investigations and character to those of a lawyer. The Pennsylvania Inquirer commented that “the reader is disposed to believe that this must be the actual observation of some experienced criminal lawyer, the chain of evidence is so wonderfully maintained through so many intricacies, and the connexion of cause and effect so irresistibly demonstrated.” And an acquaintance of Poe’s told him that “a prosecuting attorney in the neighborhood here declares [the Dupin stories] are miraculous.”3 At least two contemporary newspapers also compared Dupin’s talents to those of an Indian hunting in the woods.

Among Poe’s strengths as a writer was his sensitivity to his audience and an awareness of how storytelling choices might alienate readers. We see this in the Dupin tales not only by what he included in the stories but also by what he took out. The original 1841 version of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” started with this complicated paragraph related to phrenology, the nineteenth-century discipline that correlated personality traits with the shape of the skull:

It is not improbable that a few farther steps in phrenological science will lead to a belief in the existence, if not to the actual discovery and location of an organ of analysis. If this power (which may be described, although not defined, as the capacity for resolving thought into its elements) be not, in fact, an essential portion of what late philosophers term ideality, then there are indeed many good reasons for supposing it a primitive faculty. That it may be a constituent of ideality is here suggested in opposition to the vulgar dictum (founded, however, upon the assumptions of grave authority,) that the calculating and discriminating powers (causality and comparison) are at variance with the imaginative—that the three, in short, can hardly coexist. But, although thus opposed to received opinion, the idea will not appear ill-founded when we observe that the processes of invention or creation are strictly akin with the processes of resolution—the former being nearly, if not absolutely, the latter conversed.

The notion presented here—that phrenologists would map out an analytic segment of the brain—allows Poe’s reader to imagine a physical locus for Dupin’s unique powers, which combine the apparent separate talents of imagination and calculation. The passage carries with it a decidedly non-Romantic idea of a corporeal source for Dupin’s activities. By omitting it, Poe moves the story away from a physically stable or fixed idea of the character of the investigator. The omission reinforces the fact that Dupin’s psyche will resist the particular kind of predictive personality analysis that the overconfident Dupin himself exalts (and employs on others, as when he ostensibly reads the narrator’s thoughts early in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”).

Poe wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” when he was thirty-two years old, during a period of relative stability and optimism while residing in Philadelphia with his young wife, Virginia Poe, and her mother, Maria Clemm, who were also Poe’s cousin and aunt, respectively (which was not so unusual at the time, although Virginia’s age, thirteen and a half, was suspect enough to be inflated to twenty-one on the marriage license). Even with a salaried position editing a successful magazine, Poe still had troubles: money problems, unfriendly clashes with his employer, and rumors about his personal life that plagued him and his small family. The character whose circumstances should remind us most of Poe when we read “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is not the mansion-cloistered Auguste Dupin but Adolphe Le Bon, the earnest and hardworking young man bringing gold to a mother and daughter—just as the mother and daughter in a small Philadelphia home relied on Poe. Both young men are demonized in the course of their actions—in Poe’s case, from always-simmering gossip, and in Le Bon’s, by an arrest for murder.

The false accusation against the good Samaritan Le Bon is a central motivator for Dupin’s involvement in the first mystery. Dupin wants to free Le Bon because the clerk once aided Dupin or, in Dupin’s ambiguous and restrained double negative, “once rendered me a service for which I am not ungrateful.” But do not dwell too much on this good turn. Dupin’s motivations for exerting himself are by no means rigid. By the time Dupin clears Le Bon’s name, he seems to barely notice the young man’s liberation. Nor does Poe emphasize or celebrate the restoration of justice. Instead, the last paragraph of “Rue Morgue” highlights Dupin’s pleasure at outwitting the prefect of police, the figure of official legal authority in Paris. “I am satisfied with having defeated him in his own castle.”

While each turn of the story leaves us more in control of the mystery, we are chasing Dupin uphill to ascertain his motives, his drive, and his core principles. This is also the mission of the narrator, who declares his primary purpose as “depicting of character,” and who even suspects that Dupin’s shifty character may signify a “diseased intelligence.” Part of the vivid experience of reading “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is that our own investigative role merges with the narrator’s, and indeed the fact that the narrator remains nameless throughout more readily allows us to project ourselves in his place by Dupin’s side.

For the series’ second tale, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” Poe daringly chooses a subject for Dupin to examine for which justice was unattainable, or at best a long shot: a real-life murder that was (and still is) unsolved. The case would have been known to Poe’s readers in 1842: the summer before, the body of Mary Rogers, a twenty-year-old “cigar-girl” whose beauty brought loyal customers to John Anderson’s New York City tobacco store, was found floating in the Hudson River. The crime presented a natural match for Poe’s Dupin series, where each story revolves around victimized females and the accompanying attempts to restore order (this stands in contrast to Poe tales such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” or “Berenice,” where the loss of the female signals full and final disintegration of any prevailing order).

Poe transplants the details of the Mary Rogers case to Dupin’s Paris, gallicizing the victim’s name as “Marie Rogêt” and adjusting other characters and locales. Poe was not the first or last writer to move a sensational contemporary event to a different period or locale to provide distance or freshness in the retelling. Poe himself had done so a few years earlier in his unfinished play Politian, reimagining a notorious Kentucky love triangle as an ancient Roman tragedy.

But “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” chooses a radical and very peculiar narrative strategy: self-awareness. “I have handled the design in a very singular and entirely novel manner,” Poe wrote to Baltimore magazine editor Joseph Snodgrass. “I imagine a series of nearly exact coincidences occurring in Paris.”4 The narrator of the story, who, to be more precise, speaks of the Mary Rogers murder as a separate event from the murder of Marie Rogêt, is aware of both, and in fact implies that the fictional atrocity occurred first. The existence of the two independent branches of events, the distinct murder victims Rogers and Rogêt, and the use of near-verbatim excerpts from New York newspapers presented as articles about events in Paris, stirs questions about coincidence, probability, and the boundary between fiction and history. The narrator bridges the parallel worlds through a running subnarrative on the actual Mary Rogers case.

Poe worked as an editor for magazines for most of his career, including the period between 1841 and 1844 when he wrote the three Dupin tales. In his novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe had playfully represented two discrete but overlapping levels of narrative authority—the narrator as the writer, and “Poe” as the editor, who sometimes meddles with the writer and reader. “Mr. Poe,” the editor from Pym, also makes his presence known in “Marie Rogêt” as a separate entity from the narrator. Indeed, the narrator and his editor seem to disagree about the very nature of the story. While the narrator strongly denies that Dupin’s analysis of Marie Rogêt’s murder could be extended to resolve the corresponding series of events related to Mary Rogers, the story’s footnotes (presumably from “Poe” the editor) suggest the opposite, that “all argument founded upon the fiction is applicable to the truth,” and that “the investigation of the truth was the object” of the fiction. We are even told that new facts that had come to light in the Mary Rogers case have confirmed “not only the general conclusion” of “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” “but absolutely all the chief hypothetical details by which that conclusion was attained.” Poe himself maintained the position. “I really believe,” he wrote to Snodgrass, “not only that I have demonstrated the falsity of the idea that the girl was the victim of a gang, but have indicated the assassin” (Poe’s emphasis).5

Poe’s contention about cracking the Mary Rogers case was misleading, and he cleverly revised “Marie Rogêt” over time to keep up with developing facts in the real case. This hasn’t stopped generations of Poe readers from believing Poe—and Dupin. In the story, Dupin settles on a sailor as the culprit. One London critic in Poe’s day, after discussing “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” leaps to the real case by noting that “to us at least the only mystery in the matter now is,—why was not the ‘dark sailor’ apprehended?”6 Dupin has outdone himself this time, finding a real-life criminal. Or has he just found a fictional one? Is he part of our world, someone we might meet in the street as Alexandre Dumas imagined, or is he entirely detached from our reality?

All three tales set Dupin’s activities against the literal-minded prefect of police, but in the third one, “The Purloined Letter,” published in 1844, Dupin also competes with a more formidable antagonist: the mirror image figure of the Minister D. The many echoes between the analyst and the Minister D., starting with the first letter of their last names, have led literary critics to theorize that Dupin is the Minister D.’s brother, or that Dupin and the Minister D. are one and the same person—more manifestations of the destabilizing perceptions surrounding Dupin’s character. The doubling mechanism motif and its tantalizing blurring effect actually materialize as early as the first pages of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” when the narrator points out his private “fancy of a double Dupin.”

The final tale focuses on the retrieval of an intimate letter the Minister D. steals from a royal “personage” (maybe the Queen). Letter writing in Poe’s day, under the constant threat of lost, stolen, and delayed mail, was unreliable, and these fears were reflected by Poe in his letters in frequent asides. Stolen love letters have a particularly significant place in Poe’s personal history. Poe’s first serious romance was with a young neighbor in Richmond, Elmira Royster. Elmira’s disapproving father apparently hoarded the letters that Poe sent while he was a student at the University of Virginia. When Poe returned home, Elmira, not having heard from her college sweetheart, was already engaged to someone else.

The brilliant resolution Poe designs for “The Purloined Letter”—that the letter in question is right in front of our eyes the whole time, which is why the police cannot find it—is also a perfect formulation of the odd version of “theft” that exists perhaps exclusively in the area of the law protecting artistic creations, which is known as intellectual property: that something can be stolen and in plain sight at the same time or, odder still, that in copyright law, for something to be considered stolen it must be in public view. The Minister D., in addition to stealing the original letter and substituting a rough copy, is himself a copy of the original Dupin.

“The Purloined Letter” can be read through the lens of contemporary anxieties about stolen and manipulated writing. Dupin in his elusiveness becomes emblematic of a defining concern of nineteenth-century writers. Before the time of established international copyright laws, the life of a literary creation was difficult if not impossible for its author to supervise and maintain, and that was even truer for a popular work of literature. Poe was surely thinking of these challenges when writing “William Wilson,” whose protagonist must confront the dogged taunts of his near-exact double, whom he calls a “copyist,” while at the same time Wilson’s life ultimately seems to depend on the existence of his plagiarist-double. The challenges of originality dramatized in “The Purloined Letter” prefigured an unusual lawsuit that would involve the double theft of Dupin’s character by two newspapers—something that would bring fresh attention to the fictional detective.

In fact, C. Auguste Dupin, so often compared to a lawyer in Poe’s era, may be the only major nineteenth-century fictional character to have played roles in three separate real-life courtroom dramas.

We find the first of these, the double theft of Dupin’s character, occurring appropriately enough in Paris, the setting of all three of the Dupin tales. Two French newspapers had translated unauthorized versions of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Afterward, a third paper accused one of the two newspapers of having plagiarized the other, and the accused plagiarist sued the third paper for libel. The defense was that the story had not been stolen from the other French paper, but stolen instead from an American writer—which was then perfectly legal. The ensuing trial marked the first significant attention to Poe’s writings in France, the country that would later cultivate the author’s long-term international reputation. Dupin, meanwhile, had been altered to the point that in one of the French versions he became “Bernier,” another thinly disguised double.

Back home in New York, around the same time as the libel case in Paris, Poe brought his own libel suit against writer Thomas Dunn English, who in the New York Mirror had accused Poe of various transgressions, including intoxication and financial impropriety. The lawsuit spurred reciprocal accusations and attacks in the press. It was in the heat of the trial that T. D. English published in the Mirror a goading parody of Poe, recruiting Dupin to weaken the credibility of his creator. Marmaduke Hammerhead, one of English’s characters, is “an author in a small way” and a “confirmed” madman. From his room in an asylum, this demented version of Poe rants about attacking other writers, and about relying on “the wit of my friend, M. Dupin, with whose fine powers the whole world, thanks to my friendship, are acquainted.”7 Dupin here became the counterpoint to the mad or wild caricature of Poe popular in his day (not to mention ours), the proof by contrast of Poe’s personal failings. It is the same lazy reading of Poe’s life and Dupin’s character that led biographer Joseph Krutch to remark many decades later that Poe “invented the detective story in order that he might not go mad.”8

In 1891, forty-two years after Poe’s death, came the Dupin trilogy’s strangest judicial cameo. John Anderson was the owner of the New York cigar shop that employed Mary Rogers, and was the basis for the character of perfumery proprietor Monsieur Le Blanc in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” When Anderson died, his will was contested in the New York courts by one of his children. At one point in the trial, a startling suggestion was raised: it was said that at the time of the Mary Rogers case, the wealthy Anderson actually paid Edgar Allan Poe $5,000 to write “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” as a means of diverting attention away from Anderson, who was then a suspect in the beautiful girl’s murder. (Compare this supposed $5,000 to the actual $56 Poe was paid by Graham’s magazine for the publication rights of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”!) The idea conjures up a very different image of Dupin as a shadowy and duplicitous double agent who is in fact covering up rather than solving the crime. To be sure, the Anderson character in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” does come off conspicuously unscathed. Even the French name Poe chose, Le Blanc, is as angelic as the Poe-like character “Le Bon” who is exonerated in “Rue Morgue.” Had Dupin’s analysis been bought off? We cannot help but think of the “liberal proposition” offered by the prefect in “Marie Rogêt,” which Dupin “accepted at once.” The idea of that payment to Dupin echoing a real-life bribe to Poe seems on its face far-fetched (though less so than one writer’s later suggestion that Poe himself was the “swarthy” gentleman who murdered Mary Rogers).

Still, there is some credible indication that Poe was acquainted with and even socialized with the tobacconist. A journalist recorded an account from witnesses of a dinner around the year 1844 where Anderson hosted Poe along with writer William Ross Wallace in New York:

It appears that Poe and Wallace got into a discussion about the Mary Rogers case, and almost came to blows while at the table, Poe seizing a carving-knife to defend himself.… It was not till several years later when, happening to meet Wallace, I asked him if he remembered the incident, and he said that he did very distinctly.… What made it worse was that there was a too apparent inclination of the part of the shopkeeper [Anderson] to get himself and his business advertised by the Mary Rogers affair, and Poe resented this in the true Southern style.9

Unfortunately, we do not have enough information to know exactly what Poe and Wallace might have been arguing about or to judge the credibility of the hearsay reporting. To whatever extent we believe these accounts, we observe Poe personally impassioned (even defensively so) over the Mary Rogers case and John Anderson attempting to manipulate the publicity of the murder for his own benefit. Like the other two earlier legal cases, these are unique glimpses of C. Auguste Dupin’s fictional exploits sliding across real and literary borders and challenging both.


When nineteenth-century literary critic Margaret Fuller praised “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” she called on Poe to use his talents to write a novel. Poe had written one, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which had not been a very satisfying experience. Poe later claimed to have written a second novel published under a pseudonym, which remains either lost or a hoax. At the very least, the claim reveals Poe’s continued awareness of and sensitivity to the pressure of forming an identity for American literature through novel writing.

Poe’s place in literature will always be governed by the sharp punches of his poems and short stories, rather than the prolonged strokes of his novel or other longer texts, and these three tales are ideal examples of the former. But let us consider the three Dupin stories as a sort of self-contained novella—after all, Dupin is the only recurring character to come out of Poe’s approximately seventy short stories. That, combined with the fact that Poe did not write more than three Dupin tales, despite their popularity, suggests that he viewed them as a complete journey, and a unique one within his body of work. What is most interesting about Poe’s detective stories is not that which other writers have managed to reproduce (and mass produce). Poe’s successors in detective fiction writing etched their brilliant investigators with finely detailed realism, whose personas might be readily dissected in those investigators’ style of analysis. Dupin’s enduring legacy is powerful precisely because he is never quite formalized and sealed; Dupin blends and blurs and, like literature’s greatest characters, sometimes hides.


1. Edgar Allan Poe to Philip Pendleton Cooke, August 9, 1846, in The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948), vol. 2, p. 328.

2. For quote and initial reaction to the Dumas manuscript, see W. Roberts, Times Literary Supplement, “A Dumas Manuscript,” 11/21/1929, p. 978.

3. Pennsylvania Inquirer, review of Prose Romances, 7/26/1843, p. 2. Philip Pendleton Cooke to Edgar Allan Poe, August 4, 1846, in George Woodberry, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909), vol. 2, p. 205.

4. Edgar Allan Poe to Joseph Snodgrass, June 4, 1842, in Letters, ed. Ostrom, vol 1., p. 201.

5. Ibid., p. 202.

6. Martin Farquhar Tupper, London Literary Gazette, 1/31/1846, p. 101.

7. Thomas Dunn English, New York Mirror, 10/31/1846.

8. Joseph Wood Krutch, Edgar Allan Poe, A Study in Genius (New York: Knopf, 1926), p. 118.

9. Newspaper clipping from an unidentified publication, undated, signed “J. P. M.” and titled “The Bones of Annabel Lee,” part of Houghton Library collection at Harvard University, Woodberry collection, folder bMS Am 790.5.


Multiple versions of each of the Dupin tales appeared during Poe’s lifetime. Each of the three short stories was first published separately in different magazines: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in Graham’s (April 1841); “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” in Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion (in three parts: November 1842, December 1842, and February 1843); and “The Purloined Letter” in The Gift (dated 1845, published in late 1844). All three were revised and included in an 1845 Wiley & Putnam collection titled Tales. Poe subsequently indicated additional changes on the pages of a copy of the Wiley & Putnam edition that is now kept at the University of Texas at Austin and is known as the Lorimer copy, after one of its previous owners. This Vintage edition uses the 1845 text and incorporates the often-neglected changes reflected in the Lorimer copy. A small number of typographical errors from the original texts have been corrected, but errors in the spelling and accenting of French words are retained in order to reflect Poe’s own use of the French language.


What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, although puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.

Sir Thomas Browne

THE MENTAL FEATURES discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects. We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play. He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension præternatural. His results, brought about by the very soul and essence of method, have, in truth, the whole air of intuition.