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"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe: Background information when reading A Dangerous Business

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A Dangerous Business

A Novel

by Jane Smiley

A Dangerous Business by Jane Smiley X
A Dangerous Business by Jane Smiley
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2022, 224 pages

    Nov 2023, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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About this Book

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe

This article relates to A Dangerous Business

Print Review

Murders in the Rue Morgue book coverIn Jane Smiley's A Dangerous Business, the story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe becomes an important point of reference for main character Eliza as she and her friend Jean investigate a series of murders in 1850s Monterey, California. As Eliza examines the facts and circumstances surrounding the killings, her thoughts frequently return to Poe's amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin (charmingly rendered "DuPANN" in the narration, as Eliza strives to remember the French pronunciation) and his approach to examining relevant details.

Published in Graham's Magazine in 1841, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is widely regarded as a foundational work of crime fiction. It is often considered the first modern detective story, predating Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales, and has been credited with being the first locked-room mystery. The plot centers the murder of a woman and her daughter in their Paris apartment; the police are baffled as to how the killer managed to escape unnoticed. Witness accounts are unhelpful in identifying a suspect, as several claim to have heard the gruff voice of a Frenchman along with a shrill voice, but they disagree on the language spoken by the latter and all believe it to be one with which they are unfamiliar. Through elaborate logical deduction, Dupin is able to do what the police cannot and solve the mystery, which concludes on a truly bizarre note.

Poe's story, narrated by a friend of Dupin's, delves deep into Dupin's philosophy of analysis, providing rich fodder for Eliza's reflections as Jean reads the narrative aloud to her: "[T]his time she was impressed with how Mr. Poe was thinking, how he understood 'analyzing'...Then Jean read a part that Eliza had forgotten entirely, where DuPANN talked about the larger picture, about looking away from the body to the valley, the mountain, the stars in the sky."

In the part of the story to which she is likely referring, Dupin remarks, "Truth is not always in a well. In fact, as regards the more important knowledge, I do believe that she is invariably superficial. The depth lies in the valleys where we seek her, and not upon the mountain-tops where she is found." The character's wording might seem confusing or contradictory here; how can depth exist in one place and be found in another? But his point is that the truth, wherever it may be, cannot always be seen clearly when looked at head-on: "By undue profundity we perplex and enfeeble thought; and it is possible to make even Venus herself vanish from the firmament by a scrutiny too sustained, too concentrated, or too direct." In other words, as the saying goes, a watched pot never boils.

Eliza can't help but interpret Dupin's words about mountain-tops and valleys somewhat literally, as his language reminds her of the landscape of Monterey. But this is appropriate, as Eliza's own method of distraction that gives her mind space to wander around the details of the killings is walking in nature. Like Dupin and many other fictional detectives since, Eliza takes a certain pleasure in the mental exercise of working out a murder mystery, despite its grisly details. And as A Dangerous Business focuses on her personal coming-of-age journey as well, readers can see how her investigation of the murders aligns with her general curiosity about life and her growing appreciation for it.

German edition of The Murders in the Rue Morgue, courtesy of Rare Book Cellar

Filed under Books and Authors

Article by Elisabeth Cook

This "beyond the book article" relates to A Dangerous Business. It originally ran in January 2023 and has been updated for the November 2023 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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