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American Imago 57.3 (2000) 299-334
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Is Anybody at Home in the Text?
Psychoanalysis and the Question of Poe
Like all detective fiction written since Poe's Dupin trilogy, each of Poe's famous tales is composed of two stories. One story has occurred in a time defined as the past of the tale and is uncovered in the process of narration. The other story is of the manner in which the first was discovered. This two-story construction is definitive of the detective story, and Poe could be said to have invented it, were it not for the fact that Sophocles did so before him in Oedipus Rex. However, Oedipus Rex is rendered unusual among detective fiction by the interested nature of the detective, so that there is little difference between the high passion of the process of discovery and the high passions involved in the story that is discovered. Most detective fiction follows the lead Poe established by building the first two of the Dupin stories on a contrast between a story of discovery whose protagonist is cool and disinterested, and the high passions that characterize the discovered story. However, it is hard to think of a detective who is as coolly detached from the stories that he uncovers as Poe's Dupin, and it is also hard to think of a work of detective fiction that creates a greater divide between the scientifically cool tenor of the story of discovery and the passions that are implicit in the barely described action of the discovered story in the The Murders of the Rue Morgue and The Mystery of Marie Rogêt. In the first of these the story of discovery consists of the narrator's musing on the superior talent needed to play draughts over the merely calculative abilities needed for chess, an account of his own meeting with Dupin, and of the latter's almost uncanny expertise in understanding what goes on in the minds of other people, including the narrator's own. The contrast between these emotional levels comes into play during the prolonged [End Page 299] account of the newspaper descriptions of the puzzling details of the room, locked from the inside, in which Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter were murdered, the older women, almost decapitated, being found below an apparently locked window, and the daughter's body found jammed up a fireplace chimney. Dupin examines the room, and on the basis of various clues places an ad addressed to a sailor about a lost ourang-outang. He surprises the narrator and astounds the prefect when the sailor turns up with the discovered story that Dupin had anticipated of how the escaped ourang-outang killed the women. The second story also begins with a discourse on Dupin's combination of poetic and mathematical abilities. This time the prefect asks him for help in solving the mysterious murder of Marie Roget, and once again the story of discovery consists of Dupin's method of reasoning, while the discovered story, again reduced to a bit at the end, consists in the account of bow Marie had gone to meet her secret sailor lover, and was murdered by him.
The Purloined Letter differs from the previous two tales, however, and is not as clearly a predecessor of the detective genre. There is less of a divide between the tone of the two stories in this tale because both are almost equally cool, and the story of discovery divides in two. First, the narrator's reminiscences about Dupin's previous successes are interrupted when the Prefect suddenly enters to appeal to Dupin for help in earning the reward he will receive for recovering a letter that the Minister has stolen from the Queen by which he is able to blackmail her; second, after a month the Prefect returns, and is duly astonished when Dupin, in return for half of the now doubled reward, hands him the letter. After the Prefect has left in stunned silence, Dupin explains to the narrator his strategy...