The death of Tony Dow a few months ago reminded me that, for as much as I claim to be an Edgar Allan Poe fan, I’ve never read one of his most famous stories, The Murders In The Rue Morgue. If you’re wondering how those things are connected you don’t know me very well because anyone who knows me just takes it as a given that my mind makes these bizarre leaps—and maybe yours does too, if you think about it, especially if you think about making bizarre leaps. Anyway there’s a throwaway line from an episode of Leave It To Beaver where Wally tells his younger brother—and I’m paraphrasing from a distant memory—“I’m reading this story called The Murders In The Rue Morgue. It’s pretty good. It would be even better if I didn’t have to read it for school.” The line gets the standard canned laughter to let viewers at home know it was supposed to be funny, but a lot of kids still, I’m sure, hear that and think, Yep, he’s right. It stuck with me too at the time I saw it because on the show, I think, Wally was in junior high and so was I, and, like him, I was getting my first introductions to Poe in school, although for me it was a really creepy recording of The Tell-Tale Heart that the teacher played because it was close to Halloween, and, in class textbook, The Cask Of Amontillado, and I liked them both so much I went to the library and read half a dozen other Poe stories—the horror ones, although I kind of fell off after The Fall Of The House Of Usher left me cold, and not in a good way. I’ve learned to appreciate it much more since then.
Somehow, though, I never had as much interest in Poe’s mysteries, maybe because I started with The Gold Bug, a story that’s problematic to say the least. It’s strange because a whodunit should be a lot more interesting than the horror stories which are more often howIdunit and, in the case of Monsieur Montressor, howIgotawaywithit.
The Murders In The Rue Morgue is also kind of intimidating in its length. As much as I loved Poe’s stories as a young reader his archaic language could be kind of hard to muddle through, and even in an annotated edition that provides translations of Poe’s regular lapses into Latin and French and explanations and background for some of his allusions Murders is kind of a slog. His narrator, who is, as is the case in so many of his stories, nameless, starts off with a long, rambling introduction before getting to how he becomes friends with Monsieur Dupin and they move into his crumbling house together and spend most of their time staying up all night reading and having philosophical discussions.
It’s only by coincidence that their attention is caught by a newspaper report of two women being murdered in a house in the Rue Morgue. One of them is thrown out of a window, the other is stuffed in a chimney, but, in spite of a lot of jewelry lying around, there’s no sign of a robbery and how the killer got into a room that was locked from the inside is a mystery. When a bank clerk Dupin knows is charged with the crimes Dupin decides to investigate.
And this is the point where it becomes what it’s famous for: the first modern detective story with the narrator playing Watson to Dupin’s Holmes, which is an easy metaphor since Arthur Conan Doyle said Poe was his inspiration. It’s not surprising, then, that Dupin is supposed to have solved the crime using deductive reasoning. What is surprising is that what Dupin concludes is so ridiculous and the fact that he turns out to be right is just completely bonkers. He’s sure an orangutan did it. How he knew specifically what kind of ape was responsible isn’t explained, but he’s correct. An orangutan had been captured and brought to Paris by a sailor. When the orangutan put on shaving cream and picked up a razor to try and imitate the act of shaving the sailor pulled out a whip. The orangutan, terrified, ran out into the street and murdered the two women. It then threw one out the window and stuffed the other in the chimney to hide the evidence and when all that comes out the fact that the sailor knew what had happened and didn’t report it sooner, goes on his merry way is probably the most plausible part of the whole affair.
For a story that started with a brief essay of mental analysis, comparing and contrasting its use in chess and card games and giving us an example of how Dupin could seemingly read his friend’s mind, only to provide a detailed explanation of how observing the right clues led to his conclusion, I came out the other end wondering, what was Poe thinking? Maybe he meant it as a joke. Most modern readers don’t think of Poe as a funny guy but that’s mostly because his humor and satire pieces don’t hold up as well as the horror. Sometimes he altered or wholly invented the “quotations” that preface his stories, maybe to give them some credibility, maybe for his own amusement, or maybe both.
It wasn’t a story Poe thought was one of his best and I suspect it’s so long, with a lot of repetition and extraneous detail, because he was being paid by the word, and it’s also possible that Poe, having read accounts of captive apes attacking people, thought it was entirely believable that an orangutan would act the way it does in the story and that the whole thing would make a good yarn.
As for the writer who slipped it into an episode of Leave It To Beaver, there likely wasn’t much significance to it. Maybe the writer liked Poe’s stories and included this subtle nod as a tribute, and my generation was hardly the first to read Poe in school.
I know they’re a stretch but my mind leaps to some other—well, not connections, but similarities. Poe only got a reputation as a major American writer, especially a major horror writer, after his death. Leave It To Beaver, now a cultural touchstone that’s know for its idealization of postwar American life, had dismal ratings initially and changed networks after its first season. In spite of gaining more viewers it never cracked the top thirty. It only gained popularity in daily afternoon reruns.
Leave It To Beaver is also wholesome to the point of ridiculousness, a white bread suburban world where the stakes of every conflict couldn’t be lower, where no one smokes, drinks, swears, or even dies. So it was funny to have a little Poe thrown in—a writer whose characters smoke, drink, swear, and live in a world where death, especially murder, abounds.
Leave It To Beaver is a show where you know everything is going to turn out all right in the end. With Poe’s stories you also know that things are going to resolve—even if it’s resolution by death. It’s all escapism, and there’s nothing wrong with the occasional escape as long as it doesn’t end with murder.