Sunday, April 8, 2012

Crime Read-Along: Murders in the Rue Morgue

Books on the Nightstand hosted the first posts for the Crime Read-Along I posted about a couple weeks ago.
There was an interesting piece about the connection between Early Detective Fiction and France, including Eugène François Vidocq, a Frenchman, who created what we now call forensics. His autobiography is apparently full of the tall tales and adventures of this charismatic criminal-turned-detective.

The first piece for the read-along is "Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe.

I found the opening of the story very challenging, I began reading the story several times and abandoned it after a paragraph or two of Poe's meanderings. Having now pressed on and finished the story, I don't think the beginning bit was needed. It seemed as if he had an essay about the relative merits of various games that he stuck onto this story to pad it out (paid by the word perhaps?)
The question of whether genius or creativity is more important for a detective is an interesting one. In this story I don't think it is that relevant, but it is common in detective fiction that the detective has a sidekick, sometimes it is always the same one (Holmes and Watson for example) and other times it changes from story to story (as for Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone) The combination of knowledge/genius, creative thinking, and a certain amount of dumb luck (that the hair was still in the woman' hand, for example) comes into play in the solving of the puzzle.
The elements of detective fiction are certainly present in this story. I was struck by the similarity of the presentation (a list of witness testimony, here presented as a newspaper account) of the information to the form found in modern true-crime writing.
Juliet Grames, host of the read-along, observed that she was surprised at how violent and graphic the story was. It didn't strike me that way at all. The incident was certainly violent and horrible, but the description seemed very matter-of-fact and clinical and struck me as being very of-its-time. If you picture the period as one of gentility where disturbing images were never allowed to come into view, read about the history of New York City in the period, which Poe would have been living through, which will cure you of such delusions. How to deal with literal mountains of animal manure in the streets and the health issues brought on by dead horses left in the streets (a regular occurrence apparently) were issues of the time. The mangled victims of industrial accidents were also a regular site in workplaces of the time as safety guards on machinery were just being considered at this point.

The next book up, scheduled for discussion on April 26th at, is A Study in Scarlett by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

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