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Poe-Me Monday - Poe And Ratiocination

“The Heart Knows” OC watercolor on paper printed with permission from the artist, Riderdashark Art copyright 2023.

“Edgar Allan Poe, who, in his carelessly prodigal fashion, threw out the seeds from which so many of our present forms of literature have sprung, was the father of the detective tale, and covered its limits so completely that I fail to see how his followers can find any fresh ground which they can confidently call their own. For the secret of the thinness and also of the intensity of the detective story is, that the writer is left with only one quality, that of intellectual acuteness, with which to endow his hero. Everything else is outside the picture and weakens the effect. The problem and its solution must form the theme, and the character-drawing be limited and subordinate. On this narrow path the writer must walk, and he sees the footmarks of Poe always in front of him. He is happy if he ever finds the means of breaking away and striking out on some little side-track of his own.”

– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

When Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841, he had no idea that he had created what would become one of the most popular genres of fiction in history, the detective story. His invention of the great French detective C. Auguste Dupin would become the original that Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Nancy Drew, Endeavour Morse, and Benoit Blanc were all based on. Poe created an all-encompassing investigator who makes deductions from the evidence before his eyes. Poe called the investigative technique such a detective uses “ratiocination.”



ra·​ti·​o·​ci·​na·​tion ˌra-tē-ˌō-sə-ˈnā-shən

Synonyms of ratiocination

1: the process of exact thinking: REASONING

2: a reasoned train of thought

  • Merriam-Webster

Poe was the first to use this “reasoned train of thought” as a means of solving a crime in his Murders in the Rue Morgue. In that story, C. Auguste Dupin is an amateur sleuth with a massive intellect who makes logical connections between evidence and human behavior. Perhaps we think of Sherlock Holmes as the archetype for this type of character, but Edgar Allan Poe was 46 years ahead of Doyle, and it was Poe’s work set the tone for so many great fictional detectives in literature and film.

"...under the pretense of showing how Dupin... unravelled [sic] the mystery of Marie's assassination, I, in fact, enter into a very rigorous analysis of the real tragedy in New York."

– Edgar Allan Poe

When Poe wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue, he first created a solution and then worked backwards to create the story of the two women murdered in a locked house. He drew criticism at the time and with his next Dupin mystery, The Mystery Of Marie Rogêt, he chose a story from the headlines and attempted to solve a case that the police found baffling. This task proved to be difficult for the versatile author. The crime is based on the murder of Mary Rogers, the ‘Beautiful Cigar Girl’ of New York City in 1841. Mary was found floating in the Hudson River. She was a sales girl at a tobacco store who drew customers to the shop because of her beauty. It’s a near certainty that Poe was a customer of hers during his time in the city, along with writers Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. She had disappeared for a time before her murder only to reappear two weeks later, causing a sensation among customers. Her final disappearance was after she’d quit her job and told her fiancé that she’d be visiting relatives. Poe used the new and salacious ‘penny papers’ accounts to create his fictional murder, changing the city from New York to Paris. The real crime was among the first to be a case tried in the press; tabloid news was in its infancy and Americans were in a frenzy for the latest tidbit. The pressure from the press was intense and her fiancé’s suicide at the spot where her body was found was more grist for public gossip. Due to printing space in Snowden's Ladies' Companion, Poe’s story was to be published in three installments: November 1842, December 1842, and January 1843. After the first two installments had been printed, a deathbed confession in the real crime would cause Poe to rework his final chapter to save literary face. The final installment was delayed and published in February of 1843. Officially, the case remains unsolved and has been the topic of speculation ever since.

Ever the perfectionist, Poe would return to the “solution first” method of composition for his next Dupin endeavor and write the story that has been called the basis for every detective story that would follow: “The Purloined Letter.” There is a school of thought that believes that the Dupin series was Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest contribution to literature. Who among us hasn’t enjoyed Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, or The Da Vinci Code? It’s all thanks to Poe, who made bold choices in his fiction and forged new frontiers in his quest for recognition, fame, and fortune.

Up Next: Poe’s Women, Part 3

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