Issue 12: Vhcle Books: The Mystery of Poe’s Mysteries
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Holmes and Dupin are nearly identical, and Doyle playfully acknowledges this while giving Poe his due credit. The little if any difference between the two characters fails to explain Holmes’ continued popularity today and Dupin’s relative obscurity.
The answer to this nagging question struck me while watching Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downy Jr. and Jude Law. They weren’t particularly true to the books, though there was the occasional nod that delighted the literature nerd within me, and when you break it down they were just action movies loosely based on a beloved piece of English literature. But I loved them nonetheless because of how they portrayed Watson. Hollywood has been unkind to Watson. More often than not he was portrayed as slow, fat and inept, serving as a stand-in for the audience so that Holmes may explain his methods to someone, and by extension to the audience. Ritchie’s Watson, on the other hand, is competent and intelligent, playing the sane counterweight in his relationship with the eccentric Holmes. The past iterations, the audience stand-in Watsons, are actually far closer to Dupin’s sidekick than the actual Dr. Watson that Doyle created.
Dupin’s sidekick doesn’t even have a name. In Poe’s The Purloined Letter, the story that firmly established the formula of the idiot police force turning to the brilliant detective to solve the unsolvable that Doyle would reuse with incredible success, Dupin’s sidekick never leaves his study. All the action is related to him by Dupin who explains everything to him once the case has already been solved. The nameless sidekick completely lacks agency, he is pure function, serving solely as a stand-in for the audience and capable of only expressing awe and admiration. Watson, on the other hand, runs the full gamut of emotion, ranging from admiration of Holmes’ skills to disapproval of his cocaine habit to outright rage when Holmes correctly infers from a pocket watch that Watson’s brother was an alcoholic who drank himself to death. Without Watson, Holmes is simply Dupin; cold, calculating and inhuman. By making Watson an actual character instead of a substitute for the audience, Doyle humanized Holmes, forcing him to react to and accommodate a character that has full agency and allowing emotional investment in his characters.
We should feel sorry for Poe because he neglected to create a Watson for his Dupin. He invented the compelling detective character and the basic plot in which to use him, but everything falls short without the interaction between the detective and his sidekick. As a result we have two flat characters lacking the compelling human interest that made Doyle’s stories so popular even today. The proof is self-evident; we are awash in Sherlock Holmes reimagining: Hollywood films, Elementary, BBC’s Sherlock, House (yes, it’s a Sherlock Holmes reboot); while Poe’s mysteries remain comparatively obscure. This seemingly minor difference robbed Poe of a significant place in the modern mind, and deservedly so. Doyle took what Poe created and made it better. This is why we should only feel a little sorry for Poe.

We have to feel a little sorry for Edgar Allen Poe. Not because he died penniless and alone in the gutters of Baltimore, wearing another man’s clothes. Though that does strike me as a perfectly valid reason. No, we should feel sorry for him because today, over one hundred years after his death, everyone remembers Sherlock Holmes, but no one remembers C. Auguste Dupin. Arthur Conan Doyle did not invent detective fiction as we know it today with his beloved character Sherlock Holmes. Edgar Allen Poe did with his oft-forgotten character C. Auguste Dupin. The two characters resemble each other, and the stories even follow a similar pattern, yet today Poe is better remembered for his horror, his mysteries all but forgotten. What sets the two so drastically apart, so much so that Poe died destitute and Doyle was forced to bring Holmes back after killing him off through popular demand?
It’s not the detectives themselves. More often than not Holmes and Dupin exceed merely resembling each other and appear to be exact replicas. In fact, the character of Holmes is actually based at least partially on Dupin. Doyle fully acknowledges this in The Resident Patient when he mirrors a scene from one of Poe’s mysteries, The Murders in the Rue Morgue:
Finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation, I had tossed aside the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair, I fell into a brown study. Suddenly my companion’s voice broke in upon my thoughts.
“You are right, Watson,” said he. “It does seem a very preposterous way of settling a dispute.”
…“What is this, Holmes?” I cried. “This is beyond anything which I could have imagined.”
He laughed heartily at my perplexity.
“You remember,” said he, “that some little time ago, when I read you the passage in one of Poe’s sketches, in which a close reasoner follows the unspoken thought of his companion, you were inclined to treat the matter as a mere tour de force of the author. On my remarking that I was constantly in the habit of doing the same thing you expressed incredulity.” (Doyle, 363)
Holmes not only mentions Poe by name, but also compares himself with Dupin (the “close reasoner”) specifically. The structure of the scene even mirrors the exact passage Homles refers to.
We were strolling one night down a long dirty street… Being both, apparently, occupied with thought, neither of us had spoken a syllable for fifteen minutes at least. All at once Dupin broke forth with these words:
“He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and would do better for the
Théåtre des Variétés”
… “Dupin,” Said I, gravely, “This is beyond my comprehension… How was it possible you should know I was thinking of -----?” (Poe, 373)
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The Mystery of Poe’s Mysteries

Myles Lawrence-Briggs
Vhcle Magazine Issue 12, Books
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A 24 year-old recent graduate from CU Boulder in English literature, Myles has moved back to the wine country to start a wine label with two childhood friends. He manages the estate vineyard and in his spare time reads far too much and writes far too little.