Monday, 18 January 2016

The Poetic Whodunit - Where the Story of Detectives Began

By Ilmari

I am soon about to begin playing Maupiti Island, which belongs to a genre of detective adventure games. This genre has some distinct characteristics, which separate it from other adventure games, and while we have seen some of them appear in games like Colonel’s Bequest, I thought I should still take a look of the first proper detective adventure, Infocom’s Deadline. But before that, I wanted to further point out the original literary source of many cliches in detective adventures. No, I am not talking about Sherlock Holmes, but Edgar Allan Poe and his detective stories.

I am sure someone will eventually introduce us to this beloved cocaine taking violinist

One could say Poe wasn’t really that original. A complete history of crime stories would have to take into account at least the memoirs of Vidocq - a real person, who begun his life as a crook, but later turned into a crime fighter and in fact founded Sûreté, the French version of Scotland Yard. Using laboratory methods for solving cases, wearing disguises to infiltrate gangs, recording details of known criminals and their modus operandi - all innovations of Vidocq.

And like his followers, Vidocq has also been captured in film many times

Poe had read Vidocq and his own detective stories are a kind of homage, set as they are in mysterious Paris. Of course, Vidocq’s fictional follower, C. Auguste Dupin, accused him of being nothing but a bungler, but this was more of a perverted way to congratulate a predecessor - this fine tradition was continued by Sherlock Holmes, who thought Dupin was amateurish, and Hercule Poirot, who despised all Holmesian detectives.

C. Auguste Dupin, one of the extraordinary gentlemen

Yet, Poe’s tales were in many sense the first true detective stories, and not just because Dupin was a fictional character, but because many tropes of the genre were born in them. The first of Dupin tales, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) introduces us at first to a nameless writer who on a trip to Paris becomes acquainted with a young and aristocratic Dupin, living in near poverty, because of some untold circumstances. Together these two men rent a grotesque mansion, and just like in any good Gothic tale, they spend their nights there doing unmentionable things that would have made the rest of the world look upon them as madmen (my bet is that they were either testing opium samples or alternatively applying whips and chains). Holmes and Watson, you were definitely not the first pair of bachelors in the history of whodunits.

No detective story would be complete without a titillating teaser showing the brilliant genius that the hero has. Indeed, Dupin sees his nameless friend running into a fruiterer and then follows closely his expressions and gestures and after fifteen minutes reveals that he knows quite well what his friend is thinking. Holmes dismissed Dupin’s achievement as a cheap parlour trick, but still delighted in pulling the same prank with his clients and Watson. (There’s also a humorous story by Conan Doyle, in which Watson tries the trick with Holmes, but fails miserably.)

I wonder if we'll ever get to play the game adaptation of the story

And of course there are murders. Two women, a mother and a daughter, are murdered in their apartment - and it’s supposed to be hermetically sealed, making this the first locked room mystery. Deaths are gruesome - mother’s throat has been cut and daughter’s body has been chuffed to chimney. Witnesses claim that they heard voices within the apartment, but they all disagree as to which language was spoken. Police prefect, another friend of Dupin’s and yet another consistent trope, is about to arrest a wrong person, when Dupin finds out the real culprit. In a twist that will make all primate researches shake their heads, it is revealed that a runaway orangoutan managed to enter the apartment through windows and in a fit of rage killed the poor victims. (Dupin also does some apparently clever deductions about the window, from which the animal climbed in, and a mechanism, which shut the window when it escaped, but I haven’t really ever understood how the contraption is meant to work, so I’ll just remain silent about the topic).

This is NOT how orangutans usually behave

Dupin’s next adventure, The Mystery of Marie Rôget (1842), is by far the dullest of them all. It’s actually based on a true story, the mysterious death of Mary Rogers, the body of whom was found floating in Hudson River in Hoboken on July 28th, 1841. Poe was apparently interested of the story and tried to solve the case just by reading newspaper articles of it. Poe was pretty convinced of his own ideas and fictionalised the whole story, moving all events to Paris and giving the victim a new name.

"For the conclusive fact of the matter is that this is a dreary, aimless film, devoid of logic or excitement or even a shadow of suspense. Vaguely it leaves an impression of wretched futility. Several fairly good actors have been buried beneath a molehill of dust." - New York Times

The real crime (if it was a crime and not a suicide) remains still a mystery and the most far fetched theory I’ve heard was that the true murderer was Poe himself, who tried to mislead everyone with his story. Whatever the solution is, the story is important for detective story genre by creating the trope of a detective who needs not even move from his own apartment to solve crimes - most famous example is probably Nero Wolfe, who lets his assistant, Archie Bunker do all the required leg work, so that he can enjoy the culinary delights and grow orchids.

Not a bad choice

In case of Poe’s story, this trope makes the whole thing a bit of a bore, since it’s all about Dupin reading newspaper after another. At least there’s one interesting point Dupin makes, and something which other detectives have repeated after him - weird cases are usually very easy to solve, while ordinary murders are way more difficult.

Probably the most famous of Poe’s Dupin stories is The Purloined Letter (1844), not just because of its meaning in the history of detective fiction, but also because couple of French philosophers had a serious argument whether the story could be read psychoanalytically as a symbol of castration. The importance of the story for detective fiction lies, firstly, in the formula that the most evident solution is the most difficult to see, especially if you are a not so clever police officer - whole Parisian police force cannot find a single letter in an apartment, although it is in plain sight, just because they are searching for a clever hiding place. Secondly, this is the first detective story with an intelligent villain. The minister who stole the letter is described as a man of great cunning, both a poet and a mathematician and thus able to conceive a plot, which could confound police so greatly - a Moriarty before Moriarty.

It's also a rare Poe story that can be adapted to a children's show

Poe wrote only three stories of Dupin’s adventures, but he did use murders and crimes as a plot point in other works, like in the story The Tell-Tale Heart (1843), in which a murderer keeps hearing the beating of the heart of his dead victim.

There's also an indie game adapted from the story

But the two tales often linked with Dupin stories are The Gold-Bug (1843) and Thou Art the Man (1844).

The Gold-Bug doesn’t really seem like a whodunit, but it does have some features that come up in many detective stories, and indeed, some aspects of Maupiti Island will seem like clear homages to Poe’s story. This time it’s not about murder or indeed any crime, but about finding a hidden treasure, like in Holmes story The Adventure of Musgrave Ritual. There’s a simple code to be broken (again, something which Sherlock Holmes will do in The Adventure of the Dancing Men) and then mysterious instructions to decipher, before Captain Kidd’s valuables can be uncovered. What the modern reader will probably find most disturbing in the tale is Jupiter, an Afro-American servant, who keeps referring to his massa.

Yet another Poe's tale adapted into a game

Thou Art the Man, finally, could be called the first ever detective parody. The story begins with the disappearance of one Barnabas Shuttleworthy, whom the dearly beloved and greatly respected Charley Goodfellow suspects to have been killed. And indeed, the good old Charley, as he is known in the town of Rattleborough, soon finds enough evidence to incriminate the nephew of Shuttleworthy, Mr. Penniweather, who is a well-known scoundrel. Case is closed, then? No, it isn’t. When Mr. Goodfellow is hosting a party and opening up a box of wine, the dead body of Mr. Shuttleworthy springs up from the box and accuses Goodfellow with the words “Thou art the man”, before crumbling to dust. We then learn that Charley Goodfellow is actually a spiteful man, holding a grudge against Mr. Penniweather. The so far invisible narrator of the tale knew from ballistic evidence that Penniweather couldn’t have been the culprit and suspected Goodfellow of framing him for the murder. The narrator then discovered Shuttleworthy’s body, inserted it into a kind of Jack-in-the-box and finally used skills of ventriloquist to make the accusation sound like it was coming from the lips of murder victim.

Shockingly, no adaptations of any kind has been made of this classic.
I'd love to see this scene in a movie or a game!


  1. Funny, I think all of these have been used in Hercule Poirot stories as well. Not to mention the similarities of the character. Maybe that's why everyone insist he is French.

    1. Yes, all these tropes had been use for long, before Hercule Poirot adopted them. Agatha Christie was an especially good writer for renewing the formula. She could even plagiarize her own work and it would still feel refreshingly original! Indeed, in many of her best mysteries she followed just three different formulas:

      1) There's an obviously guilty person suspected even by the police... and he/she actually did it! (Mysterious Affair at Styles, Murder at the Vicarage, Lord Edgware Dies)
      2) The criminal is someone who seems to be one of the persons solving the case (Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot's Christmas, Three Act Tragedy)
      3) The criminal is the supposedly attempted victim (Peril at End House, Murder is Announced)

    2. This post actually gave me a shock, especially mentioning the ventriloquist act and sitting at your desk and let someone else find information since this Christmas my dad got the David Suchet Poirot collection and both are used in the first two seasons.

      And plagirizing her own work, really most cases I've seen (since I watch TV-series and specials instead of reading them) can be summed up with the murderer being married and need to hide the fact he/she is a polygamist.

    3. Plagiarizing was perhaps a bit too strong word, perhaps I should have said that sha had the habit of recycling tricks that had worked earlier. It is best seen in cases, in which she took some of her short stories and turned them into full novels (usually adding more plot details, of course).

  2. I love a good detective story, and thankfully there's quite a few examples in games. Even RPGs tend to have them, and are often a welcome break from having to kill monsters (although some investigations do lead to monsters that require slaying, especially in The Witcher).

    As an aside, Jeremy Brett (in your first image), remains to this day my absolute favourite Sherlock Holmes. He was rather brilliant, and I would highly recommend watching his series.

    1. Detective stories are nice, because you can always incorporate one into a tale, no matter what the genre. Is the story set in a medieval fantasy world or high-technology future? No matter, since murders can happen everywhere.

      Yes, Jeremy Brett is definitely my favourite incarnation of Sherlock Holmes. It is quite sad that he died before covering all the Holmes stories.

  3. I am extremely interested in detective narratives, particular the various types found in modern novels, and could talk about this topic allllll day (and night). I found this a great post and hope for more like it!

    +1 to Jeremy Brett love!

    1. Yeah, the post stretched the topic of the blog a bit, but I guess it doesn't hurt to occasionally have something else to discuss than adventure games. I am sure we can talk more about detective fiction, when we have more detective adventures to play.

  4. I read Murders in the Rue Morgue awhile back but hadn't really connected it in my head with Poe of Telltale Heart fame for some reason. Now I won't forget it. Looking forward to more detective game coverage.

    1. You'll be seeing one Missed Classic (Deadline) in a couple of weeks and then we have three different detective games before the end of 1991: Maupiti Island, played by me, and Cruise for a Corpse and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, played by Joe Pranevich.

  5. Murders in the Rue Morgue: the comic book adaptation that gives away the twist right on the cover!

  6. Great post Ilmari! What an introduction!

    But, since I'm a world-class jerk, I have a correction as a big fan of the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novels: Archie Goodwin was Nero's assistant, not Archie Bunker. Though I would pay top-dollar to see THAT team-up.

    1. Oh f... I can't understand how I could have made that mistake! I guess I'd also unconsciously like to see Archie Bunker solve crime cases with Nero Wolfe (although I have a feeling they both would end up drinking beer in Archie Bunker's Place).

  7. Archie Goodwin. Bunker is from All in the Family.

    1. Yeah, I know, everyone keeps reminding me of it :) I guess we should now have an Archie Bunker Award for the most stupid mistake of the year our blog writers have made.

  8. Belated response to a very nice article. I am also fond of those detective stories, as they give you a chance to try and be clever (and then get upset by the author who kept half of the clues to themselves). Big fan of Sherlock Holmes, but I also enjoyed a few Agatha Christie's stories over the summer. A surprising whodunit story can be found in Pratchett's Feet of Clay novel by the way.

  9. Nice overview. As a note, some of the images no longer work.