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January 29, 2014

Edgar Allen Poe Started It All...

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – The "American" channel here broadcasts many old detective crime sagas like CSI, Law and Order, Bones and The Mentalist. They usually begin with a murder, followed by the hero and his/her staff solving the crime and then order is restored.


However, very few people know that this sequence of events in story form dates back to 1841 and involves an orangutan.


As a remnant of my former career teaching literature plus my interest in the conservation of the orangutan, I googled orangutan +literature, and to my surprise, a Boston native appeared. He died in Baltimore in 1849.


The first crime short story was "Murders in the Rue Morgue" by the American horror writer Edgar Alan Poe, whose tales still send chills up the spine. He is acknowledged as the first to write the modern detective story.


The story is set in Paris where the unnamed narrator meets a bankrupt member of the upper class, C. Auguste Dupin. He has been reduced to poverty but doesn't really care as his only desire is to read books. The narrator, also in similar financial circumstances befriends Dupin and together they stay at a "time eaten, grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions."


They leave the mansion and are walking down the street when they hear shrieks from a four-story home. Thirty people arrive and break down the door. They search the house and find the body of a young woman shoved up a chimney, head down. A second corpse is found in the back garden, nearly beheaded. All of the windows and doors are locked.


The narrative continues with statements from many witnesses but none could identify the murderer or how he could have possibly entered the fourth floor room where the dastardly deed took place.


Dupin draws the description of the placement of the fingers around the younger woman's throat from a witness account and asks his friend to place his hand in the finger pods. Both agree the hand was not human. Next, they examine the hair clutched in the fist of the woman in the back garden. They both agree that also is not human.


A description of the orangutan of the time describes "the ourang-outang (note old spelling) of the East Indian Islands as of gigantic stature, prodigious strength and activity, the wild ferocity, and the imitative propensities of these mammalia are known to all." Dupin hands this description to the narrator and they both agree the killer is an ape.


They place an ad in the newspaper stating they have captured an orangutan and would the owner come to claim it. A French sailor arrives and states he was on a hunting expedition in Borneo where the orangutan was captured by a hunter. The hunter died and the sailor took possession of the ape. He brought it back to Paris and hid him in a closet.


After a night of drinking and debauchery, the sailor returns home to find the ape standing in the mirror, his face covered in shaving cream and attempting to remove his facial hair with a straight razor. The sailor surmises he learned the art of shaving by watching him through the key hole of the cupboard.


The ape escapes with the razor and climbs up to the fourth floor and enters through the top portion of a window. He tries to shave the old lady but, unfortunately, slits her throat instead.


Remembering the whip for past misdeeds, the ape then flies into a rage and kills the younger girl. To hide this hideous act, he stuffs the girl up the chimney and hurls the remains of the older one into the back garden. The sailor is turned over to the police. The fate of the murderous orangutan is a mystery.


A film, (available on You Tube) loosely based on The Murders in the Rue Morgue, was shot in 1932 staring Bela Lugosi (star of the first Dracula film) as a lunatic scientist who extracts blood from an ill-tempered orangutan and injects it into abducted virgin women. There was also another made for television, which version is also available on You Tube.


When you watch one of your favorite television detective shows, remember the inspiration for the genera came from the orangutan, one of the wonderful denizens, which we must protect, in this land I know and love, called Borneo.


...Life is good. . . . .


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