Josep Portella

Holmes' volatile opinion on Dupin

October 2011
Translated: October 2013

© 2013 Josep Portella Florit
This work is licensed under a
Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Creative Commons license.

While reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes' stories, it surprised me how Holmes' opinion on C. Aguste Dupin, the detective created by Edgar Allan Poe, changes from one story to another. In 4 of the 60 stories there is a reference to the same passage from Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue where Dupin amazes his friend with a comment that demonstrates he has followed his train of thought for a while, without having exchanged a word. Let’s review those stories in publication order.

A Study in Scarlet was published on November 1887. In this story, Holmes and Watson have just met. After Holmes has demonstrated his ability, Watson tells him he makes him think of Poe and Dupin, and Holmes replies:

—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.

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box was published on January 1893. Holmes applies Dupin’s trick to follow Watson’s thoughts, surprise him with a timely observation and then continue:

—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 thoughts 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.

The enthusiasm Holmes shows by having the initiative to read Dupin’s trick passage to Watson is striking, when he had disregarded it by considering it very showy and superficial; it now turns out he uses to do the same. In the other story it was taken for granted that they both had read Poe’s story. However, in this story it is implied that only Holmes knew it. He doesn’t refer to Dupin by his name (this makes sense if Holmes assumes that Watson haven’t read the tale) but as a a close reasoner, which evidences some respect. Later he says:

—It was very superficial, my dear Watson, I assure you. I should not have intruded it upon your attention had you not shown some incredulity the other day.

Once again he uses the word superficial but in this case to refer to the process followed by himself; rather than disregard himself, it looks like he really says that, because of his great capacity, it was so easy for him. The final apostil looks like an attempt to justify his own presumption; maybe he still thinks Dupin is showy and that he actually isn’t but he’s forced to be because of Watson’s incredulity. Either way, I feel that he respects Dupin and he’s enthusiastic about his trick.

The Resident Patient was published on August 1893. Originally contained no reference to Poe, but when it was included in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes it was modified to include the opening of The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, since this other story wasn’t included in the first edition due to its content.

The Adventure of the Dancing Men was published on December 1903. Holmes breaks again into Watson’s thoughts, who is as amazed as the first time; neither does he seem to remember having gone through a similar situation nor having read Poe’s tale. In fact, when Holmes explains to Watson the process he has followed he doesn’t even mention Dupin or Poe. So he’s still enthusiastic about the trick but he doesn’t mention where it came from.

My opinion is that Doyle had forgotten he had already covered this subject before, and all these changes and inaccuracies are because of this. There is enough time between the publication of a story and another to make this plausible. In addition, being Doyle forgetful makes me think that shortly before writing each of these stories he had been re-reading Poe and then he had decided to mention the subject.