The first two Tea, Tonic, and Toxin podcast episodes will cover Poe’s tales of ratiocination: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.”
Tales of Ratiocination: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
Edgar Allan Poe wrote some of the first detective and mystery narratives, starting in 1841 with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In 1846, Poe wrote to a friend about what he called his “tales of ratiocination,” or tales of logical reasoning:
These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious—but people think them more ingenious than they are—on account of their method and air of method.
Poe’s fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin is a forerunner of Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Hercule Poirot, and others. He’s a reclusive man with keen powers of observation, and he becomes a recurring character in Poe’s stories. His sidekick records and narrates the investigation, along with Dupin’s powers of observation and analysis. Throughout the story Poe offers clues throughout the story (including red herrings), giving readers a chance to solve the mystery.
Which brings me to the part about red herrings …
The Principle of Chekhov’s Gun
“Chekhov’s Gun” is a concept that describes how every element of a story contributes to the whole. Chekhov wrote: ‘If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”
Makes sense, right? Think about it. You’ve surely seen any number of problematic books and films that pursue threads that go nowhere and introduce characters who serve little interest or purpose. It’s frustrating.
And it’s potentially intriguing — if it’s done with intention and done extremely well.
Poe broke new ground with his tales of ratiocination. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” Poe introduced a new kind of protagonist and essentially crafted his own set of rules.
In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for example, four thousands francs of gold are left in two bags on the floor at the bloody crime scene. As we read, we might think to ourselves, aha, these four thousand francs must be a motive for the killings. But as it turns out, the gold coins are red herrings. They have nothing to do with the murders. (Alternatively, it can be argued, they’re a key point of intrigue. Why didn’t the murderer care to steal the money?)
The rifle can hang on the wall in the first chapter and go off. Or the rifle can hang on the wall and never go off or even be removed from the wall. Some details will matter, whereas others won’t. The truth isn’t obvious, and the progression of thought isn’t always clear. And therein lies the challenge — and the delight — for both the literary detective and the reader.
Tales of Ratiocination