Home > Literature, Reviews, Television > Reason and Sentiment Contend: Poe’s “The Dupin Tales” and Sherlock’s “A Scandal in Belgravia”

Reason and Sentiment Contend: Poe’s “The Dupin Tales” and Sherlock’s “A Scandal in Belgravia”

How oddly appropriate is the juxtaposition of my finishing Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, a compilation of the American literary icon’s three trailblazing detective tales starring the enigmatic C. Auguste Dupin, a day after rewatching the premiere of the second season of BBC’s Sherlock, “A Scandal of Belgravia”. Both the Dupin stories and the smashing modern retelling of the Sherlock Holmes stories they greatly influenced are engaged in the interrogation of the place of the rational being in a culture infused with intrusive sentiment.

The first and most important thing to be said about Poe’s Dupin stories is that, as far as detective stories go, they are manifestly unentertaining, with solutions less ingenious than bizarre and payoffs less delightful than ludicrously anti-climactic (I mean, a runaway orangutan with a straight razor? Seriously?). That is, if there is a solution offered at all, which is not the case in the middle tale, the torn-from-the-headlines The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, whose unsolved status in the real world was respected by the author in his fiction.

Like many an innovator, Poe’s first forays into a hitherto-unknown genre were soon enough surpassed by his imitators, namely his ardent admirer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the calculating London detective who became the archetype of the form. Although the respectable Victorian Conan Doyle shied away from the corporeal sensationalism of mutilated bodies and bloody violence that animated Poe’s Dupin stories and other writings beyond, the similarities between the lesser-known Paris ratiocinator and his more famous counterpart from Baker Street are otherwise legion.

Dupin and Holmes are both solitary intellectual eccentrics, whiling away their time in study and occasional idleness in the company of their stalwart, less mentally spry narrator chum. Only a juicy, confounding criminal mystery can rouse them from their state of semi-permanent reverie, affording an opportunity to crack locked-room conundrums, locate missing documents of great importance, and reason their way to the identities of the perpetrators of shocking murders. Clever criminals are eventually overcome by rational effort, and police inspectors are shown to the clownishly inept. Both detectives also have a theatrical flair for the revelation of their genius interpolating.

There are differences as well, though these mostly do not reflect well on Poe and on Dupin. Sherlock Holmes is a sort of bohemian ascetic detective, eschewing pecuniary rewards and resisting anything resembling emotional involvement in the outcomes of his cases; he is a pure instrument of moral justice, and his moral sense can even discard justice when desired. In the final Dupin story, “The Purloined Letter” (which suggests major elements of no less than three Holmes adventures: “The Naval Treaty”, “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”, and “A Scandal in Bohemia”), Dupin proves disappointing unmonkish in his devotion to the pure exercise of the mind, extracting a sizable chunk of the reward for the missing letter from the Police Prefect’s chequebook and undertaking the task of retrieving it in the first place to settle an old score with the pompous Minister who has taken it.

Dupin thus betrays more human and more sentimental qualities than the essentially masochistic Holmes, the pure vessel of detection, although the structure of Poe’s stories focuses on the straight mental exercise of what he called “ratiocination” with less of the populist action and dynamism displayed by Doyle’s Holmes canon. More than anything, though, Poe’s Dupin as a rational figure is redolent of the considered intellectual pace of the 19th Century, while with Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle is sketching the outline of the furious and cynical motion of the 20th.

It is left to Sherlock to render the schizophrenic 21st Century through a similar vessel, and in “A Scandal in Belgravia”, it considers the contrasts between hard reason and soft sentiment directly. The narrative is adapted from the aforementioned “A Scandal in Bohemia”, a canonical favourite for Holmes fans due largely to the appearance of The Woman: Irene Adler. Adler is one of the few criminals anywhere in the canon to outwit Holmes, and Conan Doyle elegantly leaves it up to the reader whether the great detective’s evident fascination with her is of a sexual/romantic nature or merely that of a sober respect for a fellow agile mind. In the absence of any other figure approaching a love interest for Holmes elsewhere in his many adventures, Sherlockian pastiches have long assumed the former reason for the detective’s diversion at the story’s conclusion, even if that very absence in every other tale and various open declarations of borderline-misogynistic views on the part of Holmes would serve to point towards the latter.

Lovers or Nemeses?

“A Scandal in Belgravia”, which relocates the central Adler-related intrigue to Britain’s Royal Family and substitutes a camera-phone full of incriminating images and information for the scandalous photograph at the centre of the literary case, flirts cleverly and extensively with each side of the Woman Question. Sherlock’s first encounter with this modern Adler (a dominatrix to the rich and influential) sees her disrobe entirely, frustrating his go-to trick of reading a subject’s entire personality and life situation from their attire. The rest of the episode dances nimbly around the question of mutual sexual attraction; Adler programs an orgasmic moan to play on Sherlock’s mobile phone whenever she texts him (which is rather often), and the detective sinks into one of his solitary, dark moods when it appears that she’s been found dead.

But the vacillating seems to come at last to a firm conclusion at the climax (pun intended) as Sherlock cracks Adler’s phone-lock and puts an end to her scheming manipulations of the authorities (represented by his brother Mycroft) by exposing her feelings for him as real and slapping them down in the name of justice. This follows logically from a conversation the Holmes brothers have outside a morgue in which the securely, supremely rational beings deride the self-sabotaging emotion of all of those “normal” people unfortunate enough to care about each other.

But lest reason be allowed to triumph entirely over sentiment, “A Scandal in Belgravia” closes with an unmistakable revelation of Sherlock Holmes’ attachment to the femme fatale. It’s a fair choice to make, it must be granted, and none of the storytelling and character development choices made by series runners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are anything but highly considered and nuanced. But it’s equally fair for a viewer to judge a choice to be the wrong one, and I certainly judge this one to be incorrect.

When considered in reference to its position in the Holmes canon, Irene Adler is more than an anomaly, she’s an aberration. “A Scandal in Bohemia”, after all, was Conan Doyle’s first Holmes story to follow his introductory novellas A Study in Scarlet (brilliantly adapted as “A Study in Pink” for the crackerjack series premiere of Sherlock) and The Sign of Four (whose locked room mystery has a solution highly reminiscent of Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”). That Conan Doyle was still feeling his way around his promising literary creation was obvious, as Poe also was in the case of Dupin. Scarlet, after all, was half made up of a scathing side-story indictment of Mormons that involved the master sleuth not at all, and Holmes would never be waylaid by a woman again. It was something that the author tried out before quickly and rightly deciding that it didn’t work. That subsequent fans and creative adaptors have seized upon it as a key feature of the Holmesian whole perhaps says more about the expected narrative conventions of popular entertainment than it does about the essence Conan Doyle’s timeless creation itself. It says, among other things, that sentiment will forever undermine reason in that realm, and that the disciplined intellectual lessons of Poe as transmuted through Conan Doyle have been diluted even further in a culture of rampant emotion.

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Categories: Literature, Reviews, Television
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  1. July 16, 2012 at 1:47 pm
  2. December 4, 2012 at 7:19 am
  3. February 15, 2015 at 10:49 am

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