Sherlock Holmes has long been immortalised in readers’ minds, more because of the incredible number of screen adaptations than the books themselves. He has been popularly touted as “the most enacted character of all time”, spanning the stage, television and cinema-halls. With the current lot swooning over Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch, the most recent Sherlocks, it would be a good time for C. Auguste Dupin to intrude, who happens to be a precursor for Mr. Holmes. Edgar Allan Poe, his creator, has been credited with initiating the entire genre of “detective fiction”. Why then, is Dupin so unknown amongst the larger public while Holmes continues to get all the adulation? Let us weigh the scales.
Poe’s French detective (a designation given to the character in hindsight, since the word “detective” hadn’t been coined then), Dupin, has a literary life of three short stories, famously termed by their author as “Tales of Ratiocination”. He first appeared in Murders in Rue Morgue and followed it up with The Mystery of Marie Roget and The Purloined Letter, which is the most critically acclaimed of the three. Since a thing called the Detective didn’t exist at the time, Dupin was made out to be an exceptionally intellectual human being with heightened powers of observation who the Prefect of the Police, a friend of Dupin’s, sometimes came to for suggestions (which ended up being the definition of a “Private Detective”). He was more of a passive thinker, and these stories weren’t generally very eventful. In fact, in The Purloined Letter, the actual events do not even move beyond the confines of the small room Dupin is sitting in, and the incidents concerning the theft of the letter, the crime the story focuses on, and the extraction of the letter by Dupin, are all narrated within the story. Also, unlike later stereotypes of the very detective stories that Poe gave a basis to, the mystery and its solution make up less than half of the tale, as most of it is devoted to Dupin explaining how he arrived at the solution. It is the explanation of the entire mystery, rather than the solution itself, that forms the crux of the Dupin stories. The explanations are also very noteworthy; they might seem pretty simplistic to today’s readers, but they held a special significance at the time they were written it. Poe’s explanations either employ or refute many popular philosophical and mathematical theories of the time; they are a kind of “mini-dissertations” as many critics like to call them.
Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, moves about a lot (although that might be because, Detective being a real thing by the time, he can officially be invited to the crime scene by the police) and the suspense element is given more time and space in the stories. Of course, Holmes got to feature in forty stories, four of them being novels. So unlike Dupin, we actually get to trace his evolution as a character. We know about Sherlock’s idiosyncrasies (he plays the violin to help him think), relations (he has an older brother named Mycroft) and, to some extent, his appearance (readers had been conditioned to picture him with a pipe and a deerstalker hat). He also shares a dynamic relationship with his housemate, Dr. John Watson, the narrator of almost all the stories featuring Holmes. Dupin, on his part, is also always seen in the company of an unnamed narrator, but there’s hardly any camaraderie visible there. The narrator seems to be only a device to maintain an objective distance from Dupin, to retain the mystery and the extraordinariness of his quick mind. We don’t feel any emotional inclination with the two as we feel with Holmes and Watson. Arthur Canon Doyle’s stories are not only about the mystery, but about their characters also. Poe’s are only about the philosophies behind the solution and the process by which it is arrived at. Since all three are short stories, there’s no space or need for character-building.
What then, makes one compare them in the first place? For one, Mr. Doyle himself has admitted to his veneration of Edgar Allan Poe and deemed him the “the father of the detective tale”. But the biggest proof is given by Sherlock Holmes himself, in a highly ironic statement alluding to Dupin in the first ever novel to feature the detective, A Study in Scarlet:-
“Now in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.”
The statement is ironic because he himself displays the traits he claims to detest Dupin for. This seemingly disparaging statement of Sherlock’s about Dupin, eventually helps us build certain parallels between Poe’s and Doyle’s sleuths. Both are, borrowing Mr. Holmes’s words, “showy”, although not obnoxiously so; and both have of them have a habit of “breaking in on their friends’ thoughts”. Of course, the most obvious commonality is their analytical power. Holmes is clearly built on Dupin’s skill in deductive reasoning and inference. Consequently, their methods are also very similar. Both of them try to penetrate the mind of the criminal. In The Purloined Letter, Dupin talks of a game of pebbles where a person emulates the facial expressions of the opponent and discerns the thoughts that come to his mind to deduce what the opponent is thinking. Sherlock frequently asks Watson, “If you were the criminal, what would you have done?” In short, as literary characters, Dupin and Holmes are utterly disparate, but as functioning intellectuals, they might as well be twin brothers (it’s a shame they aren’t, really).
Holmes, who traipsed in about half a century after Dupin, clearly borrowed heavily from Poe’s character. The two eventually came to define the “detective” for the writers (and readers) of detective fiction worldwide. Later popular detectives like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot (another battle on the way?) share certain traits with these two that become crucial in justifying their stance as detectives in their stories.
Not much of a battle, this, with no winning side. But, as Dupin taught us, it is not about the solution, it is about the process.