The Genius Detective
Ashleigh Prosser, The University of Western Australia
Abstract. “The Genius Detective” is a discussion of the representation of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Augustus Dupin in The Three Tales of Ratiocination and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes as first introduced in A Study in Scarlet as the “genius detective”, based on the methodology outlined by Franco Moretti in his essay “Clues” in Signs Taken for Wonders: On the Sociology of Literary Forms.
In Franco Moretti’s essay “Clues”, Moretti discusses what has now become an accepted convention of the genre of detective fiction, that the figure of the ‘genius detective’ is not “moved by pity for the victim, by moral or material horror at the crime,” rather, he is driven to detection by the crime’s “uniqueness and its mystery” which he terms its “cultural quality.”(Moretti, 135) In Moretti’s opinion, Doyle’s ‘genius detective’ Sherlock Holmes is considered to be the best representative of the ‘genius detective’ archetype in classical detective fiction, because he ultimately “lives to serve this impersonal thing: detection.”(142) However, one can further extend Moretti’s argument to apply to the other great ‘genius detective’ of classical detective fiction (from which Doyle drew heavily in his creation of Holmes), Edgar Allan Poe’s Chevalier C. Augustus Dupin. Moretti further asserts that the ‘genius detective’ (specifically Holmes, but equally Dupin) represents the bourgeois “decadent intellectual” in which scientific rationalism reigns, and who is, “no longer a person but a product” of his own dilettantism.(142) Both Dupin and Holmes’ dilettantism, their dedication to analysis and the knowledge of the science of detection, is “disengaged from the purposes of the law” because they are bourgeois gentlemen ‘consulting detectives’ and therefore, Moretti claims, they pursue “a purely cultural aim.”(143) Moretti’s argument persuasively proposes that this “cultural quality” is the motivation that drives the work of the ‘genius detective’ in early detective fiction, and through an examination of Moretti’s reasoning, in conjunction with other academics’ theories on the topic, one can aim to build an understanding of the methods of the ‘genius detective,’ his true motivations for investigation and their wider ideological purpose. By examining these theories as they appear in both Poe and Doyle’s works, one can aim to conclude upon their validity as accurate evaluations of the figure of the ‘genius detective’, his methods and motivations, and most importantly, his ideological function.
According to Moretti, the ‘culture’ of the ‘genius detective,’ “knows, orders and defines all the significant data of individual existence as part of social existence,” in an attempt (on what is suggested to be the author’s behalf) to resolve the period’s cultural fears over the industrially-revolutionized expansion of modern society and the mysteries contained within its new metropolis, the potential it offers for anonymity and thus impunity from the forces of social control.(143) Therefore, Moretti proposes that the ‘genius detective’ and his scientific methods of detection embody a Foucauldian “totalitarian aspiration towards a transparent society,” because Victorian bourgeois society’s advancement of the empiricist ideologies of the Enlightenment entrust the ‘genius detective’ with the power of an all-seeing, all-knowing authority figure, who gives meaning and thus security and stability to the otherwise unfathomable modern cities of the period.(136) To further develop this argument, Moretti interestingly suggests Holmes functions as the “great doctor of the late Victorians,” whose processes of detection ideologically function to reaffirm that their “society is still a great organism: a unitary and knowable body.”(145) He proposes that Holmes’ scientific methods of detection are “none other than the ideology of this organism” because they succeed through “instantaneously connecting work and exterior appearances” and thus reinstate the dominantly accepted bourgeois “idea of status society that is externalized, traditionalist, and easily controllable.”(145) Since the figure of the ‘genius detective’ emerged in Poe’s Dupin, Moretti asserts that he has “incarnated a scientific ideal,” because his ability to discover “the causal links between events” and thus to “unravel the mystery,” becomes the ability to “trace them back to a law,” exemplifying an ideological need to “keep the relationship between science and society unproblematic.”(144) Therefore, Moretti suggests, the ‘genius detective’ “embodies science as ideological common sense, ‘common sense systematized’.”(145) The solutions to the crimes are always described by the ‘genius detective’ as ‘simple’ or ‘common sense’ because, through his ability to “reason backwards”, they can be clearly explained as logical deductions from a causal chain of events, which can then be substantiated by his scientific knowledge. Moretti’s compelling argument thus concludes that the ‘genius detective’ stimulates “only the sensation of scientific knowledge,” because his detection is a cultural creation, a reinforcement of a bourgeois ideological ‘false consciousness’ that “perfectly satisfies the aspiration to certainty, because it rigorously avoids the test of external reality.”(155) It is from the basis of these arguments that what follows attempts to explore the methods and motivations of two of the most famous classical ‘genius detectives,’ Edgar Allan Poe’s Chevalier C. Augustus Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
“I would not have missed the investigation for anything.”(Doyle, 122)
In accordance with Moretti’s argument, the crimes to which the ‘genius detective’ is repeatedly drawn possess a mysteriousness and uniqueness that gives them their “cultural quality.” Holmes necessarily remarks that “it is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery,” because it is often the case that the “most commonplace crime is often the most mysterious.”(Doyle, 63) Rather, Holmes suggests, it is the elements of uniqueness that make a crime so mysterious because “what is out of the common is usually a guide rather than a hindrance.”(122) However, despite this acknowledgement of the qualities of crime that entice the ‘genius detective’ to detective work, one is still left with the question of why the ‘genius detective’ is not emotionally or ethically moved by, to borrow Moretti’s phrase, “pity for the victim” or by the crime’s “moral or material horror”?(Moretti, 135) To answer this question, one must uncover the motivations of the ‘genius detective’ by first briefly examining the “cultural quality” of the crimes to which they are drawn, and then the scientific rationalist methods of detection that they employ in solving them.
Poe’s Dupin series, the three ‘tales of ratiocination’, begin with a tale of a crime of extreme physical violence, and end with a tale of a crime of purely mental violence, thus addressing the “cultural qualities” of a variety of crimes in modern society. The crime of the first tale, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, is of a brutally violent suspected double homicide of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter inside their locked fourth floor apartment in Paris’s Rue Morgue. The crime of the second tale, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”, is of the murder of a well-known perfume shop girl Marie Rogêt, whose body was discovered in the Seine after her mysterious disappearance a week previous, which Poe based on the real unsolved murder of Marie Rogers in New York at the time. In both “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”, Dupin is initially drawn to the challenge of investigating the crimes because of their sensational depiction in newspaper reports as “extraordinary murders” which appear to be unsolvable.(Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, 147) Interestingly, in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”, the “extraordinary” nature of the crime is that it appears, in Dupin’s words, that “there is nothing peculiarly outré about it” and yet the nature of her disappearance and murder cannot be conclusively understood.(Poe, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”, 180) Through these newspaper reports, both crimes are represented as perplexing, sensational mysteries because of their unique and violent circumstances, which actually distort an accurate description of the events, even from witnesses’ recountings of them. For example, no one can correctly identify the language or even the accent of the murderer’s yells in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”, the newspapers instigate speculation over whether the corpse is even that of Marie Rogêt, which is further fuelled by supposed witnesses coming forward at different times with varying tales of Marie’s last known whereabouts. However, in order to solve the crimes, the ‘genius detective’ must be able to see through the sensationalization and the violence that distracts the ordinary man or woman, to the crime’s underlying “cultural quality”, to the specific, ‘out-of-place’ and unique details that contribute to the event’s mysterious appearance. The crime in Poe’s third tale, “The Purloined Letter” is “very simple” and yet also “excessively odd” (according to the Police Prefect), because the victim and the police know exactly how, when and why the crime (the theft of the Queen’s personal letter, which contains damaging information, for the purposes of political blackmail) occurred and the person who committed it (a member of the Queen’s court, Minister D), yet no arrest can be made because the letter cannot be found.(Poe, “The Purloined Letter, 208) In this tale, the mystery of the crime is contained not within its events, rather the “cultural quality” of the crime is contained within the perpetrator’s mind (who is another ‘genius’ figure but with criminal motivations), which Dupin argues one can only understand through “an identification of the reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent.”(Poe, “The Purloined Letter”, 215) In this final tale, it is suggested that Dupin is the only one who can understand the unique mystery of the crime, namely its perpetrator, because its/his “cultural quality” is matched with the Dupin’s own, his life and intellectual work as the figure of the ‘genius detective’. This point shall be further developed in the essay’s subsequent discussions of the methods and motivations of the ‘genius detective’.
The crimes present in Doyle’s first ‘Sherlock Holmes’ story, A Study in Scarlet, begin in London with the murder by unique means of American Enoch Drebber, which leads to the murder of his American companion Joseph Strangerson in similarly strange circumstances, and then finally to the true mystery of the crimes, their motive, which lies many years previous and on a separate continent. Doyle’s story is divided into two parts, the first, “Part One: Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, MD, Late of the Army Medical Department” separates Holmes’ scientific, rationalist investigation of the “cultural qualities” of the murders from their motivation, which is addressed as a completely separate story in “Part Two: The Country of Saints”. “The Country of Saints” contains the story of the human tragedy of Jefferson Hope, who commits the two murders of “Part One” in the name of revenge for his lost love Lucy Ferrier, who was stolen from him and forced into marriage in the Mormon community of Salt Lake City, and who died (Hope argues her death should be labelled murder) of a broken heart before he could rescue her. The concluding chapters revert back to the style of “Part One” as they are narrated by Watson and contain Holmes’ revelation of how he used scientific rationalism to solve the crimes. Holmes explicitly outlines his “chain of logical sequences without a break or flaw” in Chapter Seven “The Conclusion”, explaining that he is able to solve the crimes by “reasoning backwards” from the examination of their apparently ‘mysterious’ nature which is, in fact, revealed by the minute details of the crime, its “several most instructive points” which together create its unique circumstances, or in Moretti’s words, its specific “cultural quality”.(Doyle, 126, 122-123)
Therefore, one can conclude that both Poe’s and Doyle’s detective stories portray crimes which have a distinct “cultural quality,” a mysteriousness and uniqueness that gives them the appearance of insolvability, but to the ‘genius detective’ they offer him an exercise of his powers of ratiocination. It is to this challenge that the ‘genius detective’ is drawn, because it is the details of the crimes’ “cultural qualities” which actually enable him to solve the crimes and as such, they are an important motivating factor for both Holmes’ and Dupin’s investigations. However, in both Poe and Doyle’s detective stories, the focus is placed completely on the ‘genius detective’ and his astonishing abilities of interpretation, whilst the crimes themselves are secondary in effect. They are not stories of crimes; rather, they are stories of the investigation of crimes. Martin Priestman acknowledges this emphasis on the method of the ‘genius detective’ rather than the crime as astoundingly explicit in Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” in which “the actual detection of the criminal is ‘omitted’ from the text,” instead replaced with a “so-called editor’s note justifying the omission on the fictionally ludicrous grounds of its irrelevance.”(Priestman, 52) Perhaps this is part of the reason the ‘genius detective’ lacks an emotional or moral reaction to the crimes; he is not concerned with the human effects of the crimes themselves, but rather with the opportunities they offer for the exercise of his ‘genius’, his own “cultural quality”. One could further infer from Moretti’s argument, that during the period it seems society’s desire was for these stories to make plainly evident that mysterious crimes always have a solution, which is betrayed by their uniqueness and substantiated by the dominant, scientific rationalist ideologies of the time. Rosemary Jann asserts this proposition, stating that the ideological power of the ‘genius detective,’ is based on “the assumption that beneath the chaotic surface of life exists an underlying order to which all details can be linked by the trained observer.”(Jann, 50) As Jann and the stories themselves suggest, the solution can only be discovered by someone who possesses specialist knowledge of the scientific and ratiocinative skills required for the investigation and successful interpretation of the crime’s “cultural qualities.” The figure of the ‘genius detective’ and his methods of deduction thus become the most important feature of the story, far more important than even the crime itself, and this power of interpretation gives him his ideological significance.
The Science of Deduction, or rather “The Book of Life”?
Therefore, the scientific rationalist methods of the ‘genius detective’ require the possession of highly specialized knowledge, to the point of almost encyclopaedic depth and range. Martin Priestman describes Dupin as “pre-eminently a specialist” of one faculty, the “faculty of analysis, developed to a high degree.”(Priestman, 43) Emphasis is placed on such a high degree of specialization through the exclusion of “extraneous elements” from Dupin’s character, and the depiction of his life; Dupin lives in seclusion with only the unnamed narrator for a companion, he is enamoured with the night and avoids daylight, he walks the streets of the city by night, and his only luxuries are his rare books.(Priestman, 43) Holmes shares a similarly exclusionary and mysterious lifestyle; he also has a solitary companion, his only leisure activity is playing the violin, he performs experiments at home, on others and himself, and when he is not investigating a case he sinks into ennui (which is suggested to be drug induced).(Doyle, 11-12) Both Holmes and Dupin personally acknowledge the vastness of their specialized knowledge through their published writings and almost constant lectures to their companions on the art of detection and their particular methods of specialized, scientific ratiocination. Colin Loader suggests that the ‘genius detective’ and his methods thus represent the “new specialized knowledge of the nineteenth century” in which “expertise within a limited area is unquestioned” despite the fact that it leaves them with a weak “grasp on larger questions of human existence.”(Loader, 147-148) Watson’s list of Holmes’ knowledge, titled “Sherlock Holmes – his limits” exemplifies this point to a nicety.(Doyle, 16) However, it is the isolated, exclusively intellectual life of the ‘genius detective’ which provides him with the ideological powers associated with his detection, because he is a specialist who lives outside of society and so is endowed with the objective authority to explain it. Loader proposes that this ideological power is most evident when the Police Prefect or the Scotland Yard detectives encounter “a case which is beyond their limited knowledge,” and they of course must “call for the specialist” to solve the crime.(Loader, 150) This occurs in all three of Poe’s Dupin tales and in Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, and his many other Sherlock Holmes stories. The scientific rationalist methods of the ‘genius detective’ form a logical chain of causal reasoning which lead to the solution of the crime, thus reinstating the (disrupted) social order, and in doing so, the ‘genius detective’ enacts the professional detective’s disciplinary authority over society for him.
To further develop this argument, Ronald R. Thomas has also proposed that the methods of the ‘genius detective’ exemplify his possession of a specific ideological power. Thomas suggests that the ability of the ‘genius detective’ to ‘decode’ evidence is actually the power to ‘encode’ the crime and the criminal with bourgeois dominant ideologies of society. He proposes that in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes methods of detection function to “mediate any dispute between the personal and the political” in society, by establishing the “‘medico-legal’ authority of scientific expertise,” through his scientific rationalist ability to decode the “encoded evidence of the criminal body.”(Thomas, 225) This assertion is most evident in Holmes’ deduction of the meaning behind the letters “Rache” written in blood upon the wall of the crime scene of the story’s first murder. Lestrade, one of the two “Scotland Yarders,” discovers the writing and proposes that “the writer was going to put the female name Rachel, but was disturbed,” but Holmes curtly discredits his theory, stating “‘Rache’ is the German for ‘revenge’; so don’t lose your time by looking for Miss Rachel.”(Doyle, 24, 31, 33-34) However, Holmes then also dismisses his own theory, based upon the argument that the ‘A’ was not printed in the correct character for it to have been done by a German, thus concluding that “it was simply a ruse to divert inquiry” towards the secret socialist societies of the time.(36) Once the case has been solved, Holmes asserts from his analysis of the presence of “Rache” at the crime scenes of both murders, and the discovery of a woman’s wedding ring at the first, “it must have been a private wrong, and not a political one, which called for such methodical revenge.”(124-125) However, the crimes are both personal and political; Hope was enacting revenge for his lost love which occurred as a result of the political powers of the American Mormon community of Utah. Nonetheless, for Holmes, the most important aspect of the word’s presence at the crime scenes is its ability to provide specific, physical details of the perpetrator; “the murderer was a man… he was more than six feet high, was in the prime of life… had a florid face, and the fingernails of his right hand were remarkably long.”(33) Holmes suppresses the political aspects of the crime and to some extent its personal motives, in favour of the scientific conclusions which can be drawn about the criminal from the evidence his physical traces leave behind. Thomas pertinently suggests Holmes’ methods are indicative of the “emerging criminological literature” of the period, which “explicitly sought to medicalize crime” in order to “marginalize the impact of social conditions,” both of a political and economic nature.(Thomas, 224) Therefore, Thomas’s argument also reasserts Moretti’s position that the ‘genius detective’ is identifiable as an ideological figure, who is “representative of a civilized and scientific…society,” whose desires for social stability, security and control are reflected in an idealized relationship towards science and its application to society (i.e. theories of degeneration and criminology) and the suppression of the ambiguities which threaten it.(Thomas, 227)
“The game is afoot!”
Furthermore, Loisa Nygaard convincingly argues that this level of specialization and its subsequent level of detachment from humanity (the social and moral aspects of society) can offer an explanation for the lack of emotional or moral reactions from the ‘genius detective.’ Nygaard suggests that this distanced situation positions the ‘genius detective’ to see detection and analysis “like a game” in which the crime is “an intellectual puzzle with no human or emotional content.”(Nygaard, 225) Interestingly, Poe consistently makes explicit use of gaming imagery and analogies of game playing for detective work throughout the Dupin tales, whilst Doyle takes a subtler approach. Nevertheless, in both Poe’s tales and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the ‘genius detective’ appears to undertake the investigation of the crimes for predominantly aesthetic purposes, to possess the power of ‘winning’ the game and to claim the ‘winnings’, rather than in the pursuit of some form of moral or social justice. In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes plainly states he runs his consulting detective business for monetary means; “I listen to their story, they listen to my comments, and then I pocket my fee.”(Doyle, 20) In “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin is playing the game of detection for the purpose of possessing the power that ‘winning’ gives over others (particularly the criminal mastermind who is his foil, a direct challenge to his genius and an old enemy), evident from his persistent teasing of the Police Prefect for not understanding the simplicity of the case, but also for the substantial monetary reward that ‘winning’ this game gives. He even withholds evidence and the revelation of the solution to the mystery (his possession of the purloined letter) for a month, preferring to wait until the Police Prefect is desperate enough to sign a check for fifty thousand francs. Moreover, Dupin actually states that the initial motive for his investigation of the horrifically violent Rue Morgue murders is for “an amusement.”(Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue, 153) Holmes is equally callous when asked to assist in the murder investigation in A Study in Scarlet, flippantly replying to Watson’s enthusiasm, “My dear fellow, what does it matter to me?” Once he finally agrees to help, it is because the case offers him a chance to “have a laugh at them, [Gregson and Lestrade] if I have nothing else.”(Doyle, 25) Holmes relishes the opportunity to exercise his specialization in detection over that of the professional detective, a process which Dupin also takes an “eager delight” in. This enjoyment of the competitive play for power which the ‘genius detective’ exerts over others during an investigation, confirms that he views the process of detection as a game in which he can challenge his ‘genius’ (just like in all his other hobbies; Dupin’s are “enigmas… conundrums, hieroglyphics” whilst Holmes’ are chemical and scientific experiments such as “beating the subjects in the dissecting-rooms with a stick”) and relish in its ability to give him power over others by winning the game.(Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue, 144, 141; Doyle, 8 ) Therefore, the game of detection can be understood to involve the exertion of the detective’s ‘genius’ and his specialized, scientific and rational methods of deduction over those of his companion, the professional detectives and also the criminal responsible for the crime. The objective of an analytical game is to defeat one’s opponents by exerting superior ratiocinative powers over them and thus to ‘win’ the rewards (whether they are the powers gained from glorification, superiority of reputation or monetary ‘winnings’). When this fact is considered in light of the attitude the ‘genius detective’ takes towards his investigation of crime, his lack of concern for its human elements or the pursuit of justice, it reaffirms that his motivations are morally and ethically void and thus grounded firmly in his ideological purpose as bourgeois society’s scientific, ratiocinative figure of authority and enforcer of social conformity.
As Rosemary Jann aptly surmises, the ‘genius detective’ is “set apart from ordinary people by his extraordinary abilities,” as someone who does not submit to “conventional moral or legal limits,” preferring to “define his own code of conduct” because he “undertakes his feats for the sake of his craft, as shows of pure virtuosity.”(Jann, 43) The theories examined in this essay contribute to the argument that this figure of the ‘genius detective’ is an embodiment of the ideologies of the Victorian bourgeoisie, and through his scientific rationalist methods of detection, he functions to reinforce their dominance as structuring devices which provide meaning to the mysteriousness which modernity forced upon the modern metropolis. The powerful display of the detective’s scientific analytical reasoning continues to endure as one of the most important features of the figure of the ‘genius detective’, thus suggesting that his ideological purpose does not have to be restricted to the Victorian era, rather, it is the nature of modern society itself which necessarily requires someone extraordinary to provide its chaotic world with authoritative, definitive meaning.
Both Holmes and Dupin lecture on the abilities of “reasoning backward”, which is also referred to as the processes of analysis or “reasoning analytically”, and Dupin most famously displays the ability in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” when he appears to have read the thoughts of his friend, he unnamed narrator. See Doyle, A Study in Scarlet p. 122-123; Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” p. 145-147.
 “The Book of Life” is the rather revealing title of Holmes’ article on the science of deduction and analysis, and what he considers to be its practical benefits for society, the discussion of which is in Watson’s aptly titled chapter “The Science of Deduction”, on p. 18-22.
 Interestingly, the comparison between Holmes and Dupin’s intellects is intertextually remarked upon by Dr Watson himself in A Study in Scarlet on page 21. After Holmes explains his ability to know Watson had recently returned from Afghanistan, Watson remarks; “‘You remind me of Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.’” However, Holmes negatively replies, “‘No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin…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.’” Perhaps with these remarks Doyle is attempting to convey Holmes’ desire to see his own level of specialization as superior to that of his fellow ‘genius detective’ Dupin, but nonetheless Holmes’ competitiveness is made apparent, particularly through his unwillingness to acknowledge his similarities to Dupin, because he too performs such analytical “tricks” on his friend Dr Watson and his rival detectives in Scotland Yard.
 The expression has now become a famous catch phrase of Sherlock Holmes, first used in “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” and paraphrased from Shakespeare’s Henry V.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. A Study in Scarlet. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993 .
Jann, Rosemary. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Detecting Social Order. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.
Loader, Colin. “Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet: A Study in Irony.” CLIO 19.2 (1990): 147-159
Moretti, Franco. “Clues.” In Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms, translated by Susan Fischer, David Forgacs and David Miller, 130-156. London and New York: Verso, 1983.
Nygaard, Loisa. “Winning the Game: Inductive Reasoning in Poe’s ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue.’” Studies in Romanticism 33.2 (1994): 223-254.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. London: Penguin Books, 1982 .
————————–“The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” In The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. London: Penguin Books, 1982 .
————————–“The Purloined Letter.” In The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. London: Penguin Books, 1982 .
Priestman, Martin. Detective Fiction and Literature: The Figure on the Carpet. London: Macmillan, 1990.
Thomas, Ronald R. “Foreign Bodies in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four.” In Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science, 220-239. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.