tutorial, commentary, study resources, and web links
The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842) is Edgar Allan Poe’s second story featuring his philosophic amateur detective the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin. This intellectual super-sleuth made his first appearance the year before in The Murders in the Rue Morgue and appeared for the last time in Poe’s 1844 story, The Purloined Letter.
Marie Roget is based on a real-life crime that took place in New York City in 1841 when the corpse of a young girl called Mary Rogers was found floating in the Hudson River. The original murder was never really solved – which is perhaps why Poe leaves his story technically ‘unfinished’.
The Mystery of Marie Roget – commentary
The story follows the formula Poe devised for The Murders in the Rue Morgue. An un-named narrator presents the hero-detective Dupin as a somewhat world-weary bohemian with an outstanding intellect. Dupin is then landed with the difficult problem of a crime which the police cannot solve.
The structure of the story then follows in essentially two parts – the presentation of the evidence, then the analysis of the facts.
- Marie Roget disappears, then her corpse is found in the Seine – everyone is baffled by the problem
- Dupin examines all the evidence related to the crime – then speculates on possible explanations
There is a missing third part to the story which makes itself quite noticeably felt. We do not know if Dupin’s interpretation of events is correct or not. He draws up a list of what might be the solution(s) to the mystery. His conclusion is that further investigations might confirm the veracity of his speculations, but we do not know if these theories are valid or not.
That is the major weakness of this story, and the reason why it is not so successful as its companion pieces, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter.
But in drawing up his explanations for what might have happened, Poe makes some interesting observations which throw light onto the secondary subject of the story, which is the character of Dupin himself. He has a fresh and original way of looking at the evidence:
the proper question in cases such as this, is not so much ‘what has occurred?’ as ‘what has occurred that has never occurred before?’
He also makes plain a scathing critique of the newspapers and superficial journalism which runs through all of the Dupin stories. Not only are the police incompetent in failing to solve the crimes, but the newspapers merely highlight sensational details – to increase their sales.
The irresponsible highlighting of these graphic details actually obscures the truth of what really happened in the crime and impedes its solution. This critique of press irresponsibility was made more than one hundred and fifty years ago – and may be regarded as still valid today..
We should bear in mind that, in general, it is the object of our newspapers rather to create a sensation — to make a point — than to further the cause of truth.
The main problem with this tale as a short story is that it lacks any sense of dramatic movement and it certainly doesn’t have any genuine resolution. There is no active pursuit of a criminal; all activity relating to the crime has already taken place before the story begins; and we do not know if Dupin’s suppositions are valid or not. As the critic Howard Haycraft observed, “The characters neither move nor speak”
These weaknesses arise from the very origins of the story. Poe wrote the tale when the mysterious crime was still fresh in the public’s mind. He also promoted the story as his own original solution to the mystery. It was even published in two parts. But the fact is that the crime had not been solved. Indeed it never has been solved. However, the story does have the distinction of being the first detective murder mystery to be based upon a real life crime.
The Mystery of Marie Roget – study resources
Poe: The Ultimate Collection – Amazon UK
Poe: The Ultimate Collection – Amazon US
Poe: Collected Tales – Penguin – Amazon UK
Poe: Collected Tales – Penguin – Amazon US
Tales of Mystery and Imagination – Kindle illustrated – UK
Tales of Mystery and Imagination – Kindle illustrated – US
The Mystery of Marie Roget – story synopsis
Following Auguste Dupin’s success in solving the mysteries of the murders in the Rue Morgue, his fame spreads amongst the Parisian police. The attractive Marie Roget lives with her widowed mother who keeps a pension. Marie works in a perfume shop in Palais Royal owned by M Le Blanc
Marie suddenly disappears for a week, returns home, then disappears a second time, after which her corpse is found floating in the Seine. The Police are baffled. A reward is offered, then doubled a week later. After a month the chief of the Prefecture visits Dupin with a request for help – to save his reputation and honour.
The narrator then gathers depositions and newspaper reports of the crime. Her body was badly mutilated, she was interred, then exhumed for further investigation. Public outrage rose as time passed without results. It is suggested that the body might be that of somebody else.
An outsider M. Beauvais takes a close interest in identifying the body – although a friend of his identifies it sooner. The newspapers throw direct suspicion on M. Beauvais, but he protests his innocence.
Some boys find remnants of clothing in the woods and a handkerchief bearing the name ‘Marie Roget’. The landlady of a nearby tavern reports the appearance of a young man and woman. There are screams later. Then the dead body of Marie Roget’s fianc*eacute;e is found in the same spot, along with a suicide note
Dupin is severely critical of the newspapers and the police. He submits the text of one journalist’s report to close critical examination, and goes into a detailed account of the physics of bodies drowning in water. He is particularly scathing about journalistic generalisations, cliches, and sloppy reasoning.
Dupin thinks it is necessary to look outside the immediate events of the mystery. He digs up several news reports which at first seem unrelated to the mystery. He analyses the garments found at the crime scene and argues that they have been planted there. Then he compares the likelihood of a single murderer with that of a gang.
His analysis of the evidence points to the conclusion that the murderer must be the sailor with whom Marie Roget previously eloped. He suggests that further interviews should be conducted with this in mind. The narrator concludes with a comparison of the real historical crime of Mary Rogers, then further reflections on chance and possibility.
© Roy Johnson 2017