I don't think there is any denying that 2016 has been a pretty hectic year: it has brought us Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, and the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe, along with a good deal of other alarming and perplexing trends. The future seems rather uncertain, my own life (as usual) does not exactly feel under control or pulled together, but it's times like these that make it especially nice to retreat to the world of fiction and, in particular, the neatly packaged one of Edgar Allen Poe's short story, 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue.'
In his essay, 'The Philosophy of Composition,' Poe has this to say about the process of writing Detective Fiction:
'Nothing is more clear than that every plot must be elaborated by its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot the indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.'
(The denouement, for the record, literally means 'unknotting': 'The final unraveling of a plot; the solution of a mystery; an explanation or outcome.' It 'implies an ingenious untying of the knot of an intrigue, involving not only a satisfactory outcome of the main situation but an explanation of all the secrets and misunderstandings connected with the plot complication.' As usual, definition taken from Harmon and Holman's A Handbook to Literature)
In other words, Detective Fiction is highly ordered. It's planned. It's consequential. Everything is carefully plotted. There is little to no randomness involved. For me, this fact is absolutely delightful.
Poe emphasizes this to the utmost degree in his short story 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue.' In fact, he actually begins the story with an extensive meditation on the faculty of analysis and the path towards understanding. He describes how:
'so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles... 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 preternatural. His results, brought about by the very soul and essence of method, have, in truth, the whole air of intuition.'
After examining analysis in relation to the games of chess and draughts, Poe then moves to state at the end of his exposition that, 'The narrative which follows will appear to the reader somewhat in the light of a commentary upon the propositions just advanced.' In doing so, he sets up his story (which is also, by the way, considered the first story of Detective Fiction ever), as not just a story about a strange double murder that occurred in the middle of the night in Paris. Rather, its also a story about analysis, about discovery, and, most of all, about truth, and the understanding that here, in the world of fiction, you can and will get to the bottom of it.
With some help, of course. I don't know about you, but I pretty much never can figure out what's going on in a Detective story. I certainly couldn't here, but that's why the structure that Poe, and many writers of Detective Fiction later on, use is ingenious.
The brilliant amateur detective with an almost supernatural faculty for logical reasoning here is Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, but he's not who's narrating our short story. Instead, we have as our narrator an unnamed tourist in Paris, who happens to meet Dupin in an obscure library, moves in with him in a 'time- eaten and grotesque mansion, long deserted', and becomes immersed in Dupin's strange and eccentric lifestyle.
When Dupin becomes interested in a bizarre set of murders in a house in the Rue Morgue where one woman is found decapitated, and another is found stuffed up the chimney, we follow him along just like the narrator, mesmerized by his uncanny ability to decipher clues and get to the bottom of the mystery that seems utterly impenetrable. As the narrator says, 'I could merely agree with all Paris in considering them an insoluble mystery. I saw no means by which it would be possible to trace the murderer.' However, Dupin, with his enviable skills of analysis, has other ideas, and, of course, turns out to be successful in his venture.
As critic Leo Lemay puts it in his essay 'The Psychology of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"':
'During Dupin's analysis, the thoughts of the reader are precisely guided and verbalized by the narrator, who functions as the reader/ audience within the story. The role of the narrator as Dupin's naive companion and confidante is a brilliant technical achievement, for Poe puts the reader into the story in the narrator's place, and the reader discovers that the narrator verbalizes his own thoughts and reactions... we identify with the narrator, the ostensible dummy.'
This is a technique that Arthur Conan Doyle would later use in his Sherlock Holmes tales, with Watson as the narrator to Sherlock Holmes the Detective, likely because he found it so successful when used by Poe. Here, like Watson the majority of the time in Doyle's stories, the narrator does not have any idea who the murderer is: when Dupin asks him who committed the crime, he can only exclaim that, ' "A madman ... has done this deed- some raving maniac, escaped from a neighbouring maison de sante.'" He's wrong, of course, but Dupin isn't, and he can guide him carefully and methodically along the path to understanding.
And in a sense, this is what I find so comforting about Detective Fiction. I might have no idea what's going, and, left to my own devices, might never figure out who the murderer is, but the thing is, I don't have to. Here, I have Dupin, and I know that he's going to figure it out for me, and then explain it to me, and anyone else who is reading. This is a convention of Detective Fiction: that all will be revealed by the brilliant detective, and then neatly wrapped up and tied with a bow on top for the rest of us.
So as 2016 winds down, we might not get a lot of neat closure in real life. But luckily enough we have Detective Fiction to give us some sense of control and order, and so I'm going to continue reveling in it, for the time being.