Text: LeRoy L. Panek, “Play and Games: An Approach to Poe’s Detective Tales,” Poe Studies, December 1977, Vol. X, No. 2, 10:39-41


[page 39, column 1, continued:]

Play and Games: An Approach to
Poe’s Detective Tales

Western Maryland College

Anthropologists and psychologists such as Johan Huizinga, Roger Caillois, and Jean Piaget have paid a great deal of attention to the systematic study of play and man’s relationships to play and games (1). Recently, a number of literary critics have used the concept of play as a tool to reinterpret such writers as Sterne and Lewis Carroll, pointing out the numerous and fundamental connections between their literary productions and the world of play and games (2). Critics have also recognized that there is a large, non-serious element in many of Poe’s stories; their comic movement has even been reduced to a formula by Stephen Mooney (3). Terence Martin has argued for game playing as a basic quality of Poe’s imagination and pointed out specific elements of play in tales like “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat” (4). Liahna Babener has even noted in passing Poe’s use of two game analogies in “The Purloined Letter” (5), and both John Walsh and Raymond Paul suggest that Poe was “diddling” in “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (6). But to date no one has systematically examined the intimate and often conscious connection between the world of play and Poe’s detective tales, especially as they touch on the character of Dupin.

In his influential and still basic study, Houno Ludens, Huizinga initially defines play as

. . . a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being not serious,” but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it. It proceeds within its own boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. it promotes the formation of special groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means. (p. 13) [column 2:]

Scattered throughout the same text are five more criteria: play is repetitive, it works through tension and release, it is rooted in competition, it involves exhibitionism on the part of the successful player, and it is fun (pp. 3, 10, 47, 50).

Even the most cursory reading of the detective tales makes clear that Poe wished to relate them to the world of play. The narrator of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” compares the analyst to an athlete in a game and links him with players of chess, draughts, and whist and with solvers of enigmas and conundrums. When Dupin tries to explain analysis to the narrator in “The Purloined Letter,” he uses the school boy’s game of even and odd to elucidate his concept of “identification of the reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent” and the map game to illustrate principles of observation. Clearly one way in which the analyst’s abilities are conceptualized is through the metaphor of the game player. Furthermore, the body of the tales and the character of Dupin are susceptible to analysis under Huizinga’s definition of play. What follows is a list of the points of contact between the tales and the constituent parts of this definition.

1. Play is voluntary activity: Dupin is an amateur detective; he is in no way obligated to investigate any of the crimes in the three tales. Poe makes this clear by contrasting Dupin with Vidocq in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (whom Poe knew through his 1829 Memoires in which Vidocq is labeled a “Police Agent” in both the English and American titles) and with the Prefect in all of the tales. Both of these men are professional policemen who are required to investigate crimes as a part of their work, as Dupin assuredly is not.

2. Play is outside “ordinary” life: In each tale, investigating crime comes as an interlude in Dupin’s “ordinary” routine of study and meditation, after which he and the narrator return to their “normal” routine.

3. Play absorbs the player “intensely and utterly”: While engaged in analysis, Dupin not only cuts off normal intercourse but undergoes various physiological changes which the narrator notes in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” He becomes “intensely and utterly” engaged, especially while practicing “identification,” one of his game strategies.

4. Play is connected with no material interests: Compensation is irrelevant to Dupin except insofar as it serves as tangible proof of victory in the game. He receives no monetary reward in the first tale, and in “The Purloined Letter” he takes the Prefect’s money not so much as a wage as a sign of triumph. This same principle applies to the abstract reward of justice in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which Le Bon’s innocence is almost forgotten and clearly subordinate to the claims of the game upon Dupin.

5. Play has given boundaries of time and space: Especially in terms of space, Poe severely limits the Dupin stories. In each case the problem is essentially confined to one room — the “locked room” in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Dupin’s study which he does not leave during the discussions and investigations in “The Mystery of [page 40:] Marie Roget,” and one room of Minister D’s suite in “The Purloined Letter.” Within these confines, purposely drawn, Dupin plays out his analytical games.

6. Play operates according to fixed rules: In each tale a good bit of time is occupied with Dupin discussing and setting out the mental principles, over and above the rules of Hoyle mentioned in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which must be used in order to play the game successfully. In this sense, both “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter” contrast the players who know the basic rules with Dupin, the player who brings a wider range of intellectual skills to bear. All of the picayune criticism directed at the news reports in “The Mystery of Marie Roget” — which is irrelevant to the truth of either Poe’s Mary Rogers solution or Dupin’s solution, since the truth of the crime must ultimately rest solely on demonstrated facts — is intended simply to point out faulty playing which does not proceed according to the rules, in this case the rules of logic which Dupin cites.

7. Play promotes social grouping: In these tales the most meaningful interchanges between Dupin and the narrator come in enthusiastic discussions of detective methods, or when they reminisce about past cases. Further, they make a clear division between themselves and the Prefect.

8. Play groups surround themselves with secrecy: There is, of course, the shuttered mansion in Faubourg St. Germain, but more important is the circumstance that Dupin will not discuss detection with just anyone. Dupin and the narrator purposely exclude the Prefect and, implicitly, the general public from their pre-game reviews or their post-game analyses, although the narrator later makes them public in his stories.

9. Play is repetitive: The tales are, after all, a series, and therefore are repetitive for Poe and his readers — they want to do them again and again. They are also linked to one another by the narrator who summons up the previous cases at the start of each new narrative. This same delight in repetition comes in Dupin’s obvious willingness to defeat the Prefect again and again, even if they are not in the same league.

10. Play relies on building and releasing tensions: Obviously the pattern of crime, especially violent crime, and solution provides tension and release for the reader. Poe also adds the threat of physical danger for Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” danger which is by no means necessary to either tale. But as if acknowledging the possibility that too much tension will ruin the game atmosphere, Poe constructs plots that defuse the residual tension that could arise at the end of these tales from the discomfort of arrest and punishment: in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” he makes the killer an animal, in “The Mystery of Marie Roget” he notes the sailor’s escape, and he makes the crime a purely political one in “The Purloined Letter.” In each case the analysis and the game are more important than the potentially uncontrollable tensions latent in the action.

11. The successful player is exhibitionistic: If nothing else, Dupin is an exhibitionist. He plays to the narrator who is his audience in these tales and arranges things so as [column 2:] to astonish the Prefect. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” the narrator notes that “He boasted to me, with a low chuckling laugh, that most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms. . .” (7).

12.Play involves competition: In each of the tales Dupin faces several kinds of competition. First he must solve the problem itself, next he must maneuver the antagonist into defeat, and finally he must make a fool of the chuckle-headed Prefect. In each case Poe provides several levels of competition because he wishes to reduce the impact of the serious competition (Dupin versus the criminal) by giving a patently comic one (Dupin versus the Prefect) in order to maintain the playful nature of the whole construct.

13. Play is fun: The narrator in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” not” that the analyst “derives pleasure” and takes “unaccountable” and “eager delight” in analysis and detection. Dupin takes on the business in the Rue Morgue because “an inquiry will afford us amusement.” Dupin clearly gets a kick out of the whole thing, from toying with the Prefect to flummoxing Minister D ————.

The concept of play thus helps to explain Dupin’s character and behavior, illuminates plotting and treatment of setting in the detective tales, and provides, I think, the basis for a consistent interpretation of Poe’s stance to” ward these works. The following remarks offer a tentative outline of such an interpretation.

If broadly enough defined, all fiction can be considered play, for it involves the reader in “a free activity standing consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the players intensely and utterly,” an activity that proceeds “within its own boundaries” according to its own “rules.” Puritans were in effect making this point in the sixteenth century in their objections to the Elizabethan stage. Thus to choose to write a fictional narrative instead of expository prose is to choose to engage one’s reader in a kind of play world. Although such a line of argument can be dangerously reductive, it has specific application to Poe. When Poe worked for the Southern Literary Messenger in 1836, he witnessed an exhibition of what was purported to be a chess-playing automaton, became interested in its operations, studied the published accounts claiming to reveal its secret, and wrote an expository article, “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” which reviewed theories about its secret and established the “correct” answer with an elaborate substantiating analysis. Almost the same thing happened when Poe read the facts of the murder of Mary Rogers: he became interested in the problem, reviewed and criticized the literature, and brought forth the “real” solution to the murder. He could have written this up precisely as he had the material in “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” the most efficient and practical approach given that the procedures were so similar. Instead he chose to embroider his analysis with fictional trappings (including some tongue-in-cheek remarks about correspondences) which make absolutely no difference to the validity of his argument but do displace it into a world of play. The results, oddly enough, survive Poe’s mistakes in facts and his erroneous conclusions.

In suggesting that Poe’s detective fictions involved the [page 41:] reader in play worlds, it is perhaps most accurate to describe the reader’s involvement as that of a spectator witnessing a master game player. As if to emphasize both the reader’s role as spectator and Dupin’s role as game player, Poe incorporates episodes into these tales which have no practical utility in terms of the progress of the plot — they serve only to expose Dupin’s love of playing. An example from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is Dupin’s bit of associational razzle-dazzle when he breaks in on the narrator’s thoughts. In the context of the plot this is irrelevant; it serves as an instance of Dupin’s use of what he calls “identification,” of course, but this procedure plays very little part in a case which depends on close observation of physical evidence of an orangutan’s actions. The episode is there, as Sherlock Holmes puts it in A Study in Scarlet, because Dupin is “showy” (8). The same holds true for Dupin’s refusal to leave his rooms in “The Mystery of Marie Roget”: obviously it would be more efficient to go to the scene of the crime and to interview people involved, but to do so would reduce the “fun” of treating the mystery as an intellectual puzzle. Perhaps the best example of Dupin’s playful inutility comes at the close of the action of “The Purloined Letter” when he dons green spectacles and visits the Minister in his quarters. Subsequently he returns and recovers the letter when a confederate discharges a gun and diverts the Minister. In practical terms, the second visit is unnecessary: Dupin could merely have told the police, who have the keys and free access to the rooms every evening. But it amuses him to retrieve the letter in a flamboyant and dangerous manner, to turn the recovery into a game complete with a strategy of deception and the tension of unnecessary risk.

Of all the detective tales, the one in which the reader watches Dupin in the purest game situation is “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” During the course of his thinking about the puzzling disappearance of Marie Roget, Dupin faces a number of alternate explanations offered by the press: 1) that Marie has not been murdered; 2) that she committed suicide; 3) that St. Eustache murdered her; and 4) that she was killed by a gang of thugs (9). After evaluating and rejecting all of these commonplace possibilities, Dupin hypothesizes that Marie was murdered by a naval officer with whom she had eloped during the previous year, a view he then shows to be “correct” within the story itself. Here is an expansion of the structure of the game of draughts outlined in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which the analyst makes “some recherche movement, the result of some strong exertion of the intellect” (IV, 147), and wins the game. In “Marie Roget” the moves which will lead to stalemate are all of the suggestions offered by the newspapers. Dupin, the analyst, wins his game with these “opponents” by employing a new and unexpected strategy.

On a rather different level, Dupin’s procedures in “The Mystery of Marie Roget” have another point of contact with the world of play. During the 1920’s, game theory became part of the discipline of mathematics. Game theory is the mathematical evaluation of strategies in any game (or any other activity which can be reduced to the terms of a game) in order to determine the most effective course of action that will result in victory. This is, essentially, what [column 2:] happens in this tale — various strategies are presented evaluated, and rejected until the most acceptable is found at the end. Poe may have had an intuition about the mathematical basis of such a procedure — he does insist in “The Purloined Letter” that the analyst needs to be both poet and mathematician. In this context Poe’s reference to mathematics calls up not merely probability theory, as Forgues suggested in 1846, but also the analysis of strategy in games in the tradition of Pascal, Fermat and Edmond Hoyle (10).

Behind these tales, then, is a version of the Poe who challenged his readers to play cryptography games with him and composed articles allowing them to be spectators at his victories. It is no wonder that when the detective novel appeared in the 1920’s, it showed Dr. Fell playing checkers and chess, Philo Vance and the Continental Op playing poker, and Wimsey of Balliol playing cricket. It is no wonder that Ronald Knox and W. H. Wright wrote “rules of the game” for composing detective plots. They got it all from Poe.



(1) Huizinga, Homo Ludem (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955); Caillois, Man, Play, and Games, trans. Meyer Barash (New York: Free Press of Glenco, 1961); Piager, Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood, trans. C. Gattegne and F. M. Hodgson (New York: Norton, 1962).

(2) Kathleen Blake, Play, Games, and Sport, the Literary World of Lewis Carroll (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1974); Richard A. Lanham, Tristram Shandy: the Games of Pleasure (Berkeley: Univ. Of California Press, 1973); see also Jacques Ehrmann, ea., Game, Play, Literature, Yale French Studies, 1968.

(3) Stephen L. Mooney, “Comic Intent in Poe’s Tales: Five Criteria,” Modern Language Notes, 76 (1961), 432-434. See also David Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe, A Phenomenological View (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), p. 230.

(4) Terence Martin, ‘The Imagination at Play,” Kenyon Review 28 (1966), 195-198.

(5) Liahna K. Babener, “The Shadow’s Shadow,” The Mystery and Detection Annual (Beverly Hills: Donald Adams, 1972), pp. 21-23.

(6) Walsh, Poe the Detective (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press 1968); Paul, Who Murdered Mary Rogers? (Englewood Cliffs Prentice Hall, 1971)

(7) Edgar Allan Poe, “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1902), IV, 152.

(8) Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes (New York: Porter, 1967), 1, 162.

(9) Walsh argues that Poe knew of the possibility that Mary Rogers died from a botched abortion and altered his tale to accommodate this possibility. If this was the case, death by botched abortion is another item in the list of alternatives but one which Poe did not have time to work up.

(10) See Sidney P. Moss, “Poe as Probabilist in Forgues’ Critique of the Tales,” Emerson Society Quarterly, No. 60 (Fall 1970), Supplement, Part 1. For Poe’s use of modeling, which can also have a mathematical basis, see Richard P. Benton, “The Mystery of Marie Roget: A Defense,” Studies in Short Fiction, 6 (1969), 150.


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PS, 1977]