Legacies of the Rue Morgue: Science, Space, and Crime Fiction in France

Legacies of the Rue Morgue: Science, Space, and Crime Fiction in France

Legacies of the Rue Morgue: Science, Space, and Crime Fiction in France

Legacies of the Rue Morgue: Science, Space, and Crime Fiction in France


Taking Edgar Allan Poe's 1841 "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" as an inaugural frame, Andrea Goulet traces shifting representations of violence, space, and nation in French crime fiction from serial novels of the 1860s to cyberpunk fictions today. She argues that the history of spatial sciences--geology, paleontology, cartography--helps elucidate the genre's fundamental tensions: between brutal murder and pure reason; historical past and reconstructive present; national identity and global networks.

As the sciences underlying her analysis make extensive use of strata and grids, Goulet employs vertical and horizontal axes to orient and inform her close readings of crime novels. Vertically, crimes that take place underground subvert above-ground modernization, and national traumas of the past haunt present criminal spaces. Horizontally, abstract crime scene maps grapple with the sociological realities of crime, while postmodern networks of international data trafficking extend colonial anxieties of the French nation.

Crime gangs in the catacombs of 1860s Paris. Dirt-digging detectives in coastal caves at the fin-de-siècle. Schizoid cartographers in global cyberspace. Crime fiction's sites of investigation have always exposed central rifts in France's national identity while signaling broader, enduring unease with violent disruptions to social order. Reading murder novels of the last 150 years in the context of shifting sciences, Legacies of the Rue Morgue provides a new spatial history of modern crime fiction.


Why France? readers of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” may ask. What led the American tale-teller of gothic suspense to set the first modern detective story in contemporary Paris and to name it, morbidly, for a fictional street in the real Quartier St. Roch? As Baudelaire enjoyed pointing out, Poe had never set foot in France when he wrote the first Dupin mystery, published in the April 1841 issue of Graham’s Magazine. But he had feathered the path of his worldly ambitions with French or French-sounding pseudonyms (“Henri Le Rennet”), characters (“The Duke de l’Omelette”), and epigraphs (La Bruyère’s “Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul”) for years. Still, the specificity of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” ’s location and its linkage of criminality to nationhood goes beyond the mere patina of glamor associated with Paris. This was a city where the Gazette des Tribunaux spread grisly details about domestic crimes to a readership in the thousands, and where a former thief, Eugène François Vidocq, could become director of the Sûreté Nationale, establish a detective agency, and publish his memoirs to worldwide renown. By referencing the Gazette and Vidocq in his tale of ratiocination, Poe was speaking in 1841 what may now be called “Global French,” a language that paradoxically reaches transnational proportions through local particularity.

Local: a double murder in a home situated between the first arrondissement’s Rue St. Roch and Rue Richelieu; Global: shifting demographics and topographies of crime in modern metropolitan areas like Paris, London, and New York. Local: witnesses in the apartment building are questioned for testimony; Global: interpreters are called in, as these inhabitants of Paris hail from Italy, England, Spain, Holland, and France (Dupin calls them “denizens of the five great divisions of Europe”). Local: an amateur detective faces off with the Prefecture of Police; Global: nation-states of the early nineteenth century negotiate between vigilantism and official institutions of judiciary power. Local: Dupin consults both the Gazette des Tribunaux and Le Monde . . .

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