Monday, May 20, 2013

Holmes vs. Dupin: The Ultimate Detective Face-Off

C. Auguste Dupin
Sherlock Holmes

Everyone knows who Sherlock Holmes is. You might have discovered him directly through Conan Doyle's great stories. Or, more probably, you saw a film version of one of his many adventures, or his newest screen appearance - BBC's Sherlock. And there are numerous other references to the great detective in our daily lives. Do you know who Sherlock Holmes is? "Elementary, my dear Watson."
Trivia time! Holmes never says the above phrase, though he does say "Elementary," in The Crooked Man, and " dear Watson," a few lines before.
Recently, however, I discovered that Sherlock, though he may be the most well known, was not, by far, the first of his kind. Doyle may have made famous the detective with the clever mind, the discerning eye, and the occasional dry humor, but he only developed what had come before.
Who was Holmes's predecessor? The clue is in the text. In the first-ever Sherlock Holmes story, A Study In Scarlet, Dr Watson comments:
"You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories." 
Sherlock Homes rose and lit his pipe. 
"No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin," he observed. "Now, 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. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine."
I have the Complete Works of Poe on my shelf, so I was curious to find out about this Dupin fellow, of whom Holmes speaks so disparagingly. Turns out, Poe only wrote three stories starring Dupin: The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, and The Purloined Letter. These three short stories are narrated by a friend of Dupin's - a sort of Dr. Watson character - who's name is never revealed. I won't talk much about the plots of the stories - I highly recommend that you read them yourself - but here is my analysis  regarding Dupin, his methods, and his comparison to Holmes.

Firstly, I found that the stories could be classified in the following manner: Rue Morgue was quite an adventure story, and rather similar to Sherlock Holmes. Marie Roget was very analytical, as Dupin not only got all of his clues from the newspaper, he never left the comfort of his home or exerted himself physically in any way. The Purloined Letter could be called a mixture of the two, having some action, but less than in Rue Morgue.
However, overall, I found Dupin to be much less active than Holmes, even in Rue Morgue. In both Rue Morgue and Purloined Letter, Dupin does go out to do some investigating, but all in all, he and his unnamed friend are rather secluded on the outskirts of the town, and get most of their information from the newspaper. Though Holmes does have his pensive moments of excessive smoking and violin playing, he is much more of a part of society than Dupin.

Before I go on, I must make the point that in no way did I not like Dupin or the aforementioned three stories in which he appears. My opinion was quite the opposite. And though it may sound as though I have much to say in favor of Holmes and even some against Dupin, I must say that in Dupin's day, the term detective had not yet originated. Dupin was the first of his kind. He was not a professional "Consulting Detective" like Holmes. It must have been hard to get permission to look over a crime scene such as the one in Rue Morgue without being in the police force. Dupin's character was a very unique idea at the time. Highest commendations to Poe!

We continue.

One thing that I find very strikingly different between Dupin and Holmes is that Holmes is much more of a Character. Dupin is not as a well rounded Character as Holmes. This may come of the fact that Holmes is in sixty stories, and Dupin is in three. But even in A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock's debut appearance, Holmes is more fully developed in that one novel (an extremely short one, though) then Dupin is in his entire literary existence (disregarding fan fiction, of course). We know that Holmes plays violin, smokes a pipe, is an excellent shot, enjoys boxing and wrestling, has an excellent knowledge of the theatre, and doesn't know that  the earth goes around the sun. (Yeah, Watson was amazed at that last one, too...)
But Dupin? Can't say that much for him. Sure, he has an excellent mind. Yes, he likes seclusion. He definitely enjoys reading the newspaper. But what else? I suspect that at least he knows the structure of our solar system. :-)

And talking about developed characters, what of Dupin's friend with no name? Watson is as clear a character as Holmes (though many times portrayed in film incorrectly - but that's for another post). We know about his past in the wars, his medical practice, his married life - but we know practically nothing of the Unnamed Fellow. It seems as though the Unnamed Fellow is just there to marvel at Dupin's wisdom and perspicacity, similar to Watson in many film versions.

But despite these differences, there are quite a few similarities. They both like to freak people out by their uncanny perception abilities (despite this being what Holmes so disparagingly accused Dupin of in the quote in the beginning of this post). They both like to show off their knowledge. They both have to deal with the rather dull police. They both agree that the right method is to put themselves in the mind of the criminal, and both use this method time and time again:
Watson/Unnamed Fellow/Unbelieving Observer: "But there is no way out! The criminal couldn't have escaped!"
Holmes/Dupin: "But he did, for we searched the room and he is not here. Therefore, he must have gotten out somehow, or is hiding in some secret place we didn't think of.  Now, if you were the criminal, what would you have done?..."

...and so on and so forth.

I believe that I am slightly biased in that I was raised on Sherlock Holmes and just recently discovered Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin. I have seen no films with the French detective (though I am sure there are many), and the fact that there are only three of his books makes him rather less widely known. However, am very glad that I found him, as I am sincerely greatful to Poe for introducing the genre of detective stories, without which Holmes would never have existed. Once again: highest commendations to Poe!

And talking about detectives before Holmes, has anyone heard of Sergeant Cuff? From Wilkie Collins' Moonstone? Regarded as the first true British detective?

Hmmm... I feel another round of "The Ultimate Detective Face-Off" is near at hand!



  1. can yall find meh a link plzs

  2. You're not biased, Holmes was built based on the Dupin character, so it makes sense that he's more fleshed out. John Corey would be a recent example of such Ultimate Detectives.

  3. Lovely comparison! Sherlock Holmes was a big part of my teenagehood's readings and I have always adore Poe, specially for the poems and horror classics. Recently I bought a Poe's special edition in Portuguese and it contains Dupin's "trilogy". I immediately linked Holmes to Dupin (and vice versa) and then I came across your article :) Thanks for sharing your impressions and recommending other readings.


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