I arrived in Paris on a hazy summer morning. I wondered if things would ever clear up. Here, wide avenues and boulevards rolled across the city, like stage scenery infinitely picked up after and replaced before me. The business and industrial districts loomed equidistant at the city’s edges. The banks of the Seine felt like coming up for air. Only the Rue Morgue, setting of the benchmarking Edgar Allan Poe gothic detective story, made Paris feel familiar.
I’d read “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” for the first time only a year earlier. But I’d returned to it several times since. The Paris of Edgar Allan Poe – with its grotesque mansions, violent deeds and endless walking – appeared a most unpleasant place. But it was also fictional. I needn’t have visited Paris to know that there is no Rue Morgue among its streets. Poe needn’t have visited to invent it.
Yet if he could weave such a compelling path through gothic Paris, I wondered if his short story wasn’t an unfit guide for my own. And maybe, dear reader, yours. In this dispatch, join me in uncovering the real locations that may stand for the fictional settings of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”.
Paris and Edgar Allan Poe
Long before it became a guide through the streets of gothic Paris, the detective story by Edgar Allan Poe was a guide for all modern stories of the genre.
Described as a tale of ratiocination, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” follows C. Auguste Dupin and an unnamed narrator as they try to identify the perpetrator of a grisly double-murder. Ratiocination, the method by which Dupin solves the crime, consists of chaining inferences to build a complete picture. He first demonstrates his process by correctly inferring how the narrator’s mind has wandered during an evening walk.
The narrator considers it as a “quiet observation” that leads to “that infinity of mental excitement”. For me, it was the only proper way to track the fictional short story through the very real streets of Paris.
With ratiocination as my method, I hoped to rely on clues scattered throughout the story. I was looking for a suitable stand-in for not only the Rue Morgue but the many other settings. And with a copy sourced from one of the bouqinistes – riverside second-hand booksellers – I set out with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” to find the real Paris of Edgar Allan Poe.
“Very rare and very remarkable”
Residing in Paris during the spring and part of the summer of 18––, I there became acquainted with a Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin. […] Our first meeting was at an obscure library in the Rue Montmartre, where the accident of our both being in search of the same very rare and very remarkable volume, brought us into closer communion.
The narrative, after a lengthy treatise on the merits of analysis, opens with the narrator on Rue Montmartre. My own investigation began there, too – and quickly got off-course.
That the meeting between the narrator and Dupin should occur in a library is no coincidence. Where else but a library can one go to seek truth in all its murky shades? Where else could our narrator be so primed as to fall into friendship with Dupin? And it’s in similar searches across Paris that their paths cross and their souls entwine.
I, however, was to stay separate. For all my searching, there seemed to be no libraries, obscure or otherwise, on Rue Montmartre. Even considering that Poe may have been referring to the French word for bookshop, librairie, led me only to a store specialising in recipe books.
But all was not lost before it could start. A short walk away from this street stood two institutions of French literature – attractive places for anyone, real or fictional, searching for rare and remarkable books. They were Bibliothèque Richelieu, the national library, and Bibliothèque Mazarine, the oldest public library in France.
Searching the Bibliothèque Richelieu
If the “very rare and very remarkable” volume was published in France, the narrator of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” would have found it here.
As one of two main sites comprising the national library, Bibliothèque Richelieu holds some of the complete collection of all works published in France – including 15 million books. The library sprawls over an entire city block. I arrived at the garden entrance on Rue Vivienne.
It was a hot summer day. I couldn’t imagine seeing the skinny palms and pale stone in any other season. Readers gathered on benches hidden among the tall grass. It was as though we still lived in the 18th century and were trespassing on private property. Perhaps, in their minds, they were. There was, to my reasoning, no other cause to stay outdoors in defiance of the heat. I headed inside.
The unrecognisable reading room
Even if it were the library where the narrator and Dupin met for the first time, they wouldn’t recognise it. Since opening to the public in 1692, Bibliothèque Richelieu has expanded several times to accommodate its growing collection. Upon my arrival, however, the taste was just as I’d hoped for.
In the reading room, visitors crowded round desks or lounged in armchairs, undertaking searches of their own. Shelves of books stretched up three more floors. Above even them loomed the glass oval, bathing the room in summer sunlight.
With the carpet to silence my steps, I indulged in two meandering laps of the room. On my way, I bent and stretched to examine volumes. They spanned from collections of European encyclopaedias to the latest cartoons from Parisian magazines.
Upstairs in Bibliothèque Richelieu, mere records gave way to pieces of history in the BnF Museum. Here, room after room displayed artefacts and decorative styles from throughout French and world history. They included chess pieces belonging to Charlemagne, a Roman tablet condemning graverobbing and the fresco of the Mazarin Gallery.
The rare books of Bibliothèque Mazarine
For rare and remarkable works, the narrator would have had better luck in Bibliothèque Mazarine. Once the personal library of Cardinal Mazarin, Bibliothèque Mazarine is today part of the imposing Institute of France. It holds the country’s largest collection of rare books.
On the other side of one of the institute’s grand doorways, signs reading passage interdit guided me through a courtyard. At the end stood a bust of the Cardinal himself. Beyond awaited the collection he started – 200,000 volumes during his lifetime and 600,000 by the time I arrived. I began my climb up the grand staircase that would lead me to them.
The restricted section
From his seat behind an ornate but busy desk, a librarian welcomed me to the library. He didn’t seem to share my reluctance to disturb the readers. I passed him and entered the reading room.
Smaller, cosier, Bibliothèque Mazarine made up for its diminutive size with the scope of its mystery. In one bookshelf, seams betrayed a hidden door. At the end of the L-shaped room, a velvet rope blocked off another section. A sterner librarian’s eyes followed me. It was as though she knew what I was looking for and had sworn to keep me from uncovering it. The rarest and most remarkable volumes, I was suddenly sure, were on the other side of that rope. Under her watch. Out of my reach.
Apart from its rarities, Bibliothèque Mazarine had one thing Richelieu did not. The wooden floors of the reading room creaked and clacked under my feet. I wondered if this was why the librarian stationed at the entrance had seemed so unconcerned with the volume of his greeting. I found I couldn’t stand it and imagined the library’s more studious visitors shared the feeling. Reaching the door by which I’d entered, I decided that one tour was enough.
The afternoon was wearing on and I needed to find somewhere to stay.
“Time-eaten and grotesque” Paris
It was at length arranged that we should live together during my stay in the city; and as my worldly circumstances were somewhat less embarrassed than his own, I was permitted to be at the expense of renting, and furnishing in a style which suited the rather fantastic floom of our common temper, a time-eaten and grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions into which we did not inquire, and tottering to its fall in a retired and desolate portion of the Faubourg St Germain.
Once green farmland on the edges of the city, Faubourg St Germain so happened to be the greenest area available at a time when French high society was looking for somewhere new to build its mansions. One hundred sprung up between 1690 and 1725, only to be ransacked or reclaimed during the French Revolution of 1789. A tug-of-war ensued – but by the time of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, ownership of the neighbourhood would have most likely been leaning towards the people. In this closed-off society, people would have kept to themselves and guarded their secrets.
Alas, by the time of my visit, it had veered back into the control of society’s highest rollers. Still, I approached with all the confidence of a welcome guest. Later in the story, Dupin and the narrator invite their suspect (and their audience) to join them at a precise though redacted address – as is common in gothic stories. “Call at No. ––, Rue ––, Faubourg St Germain au troisième.” But it was the details Poe chose not to remove that confused me the most.
Edgar Allan Poe and Paris arrondissements
It was here, in the Faubourg St Germain, that “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” started to reveal itself. For, despite the narrator’s invitation, the neighbourhood wasn’t au troisième, in the third arrondissement, but the seventh. Though this hasn’t always been the case.
Before 1860, a period which covers the writing and publication of the Edgar Allan Poe gothic short story, Paris arrondissements were distributed differently – 10 instead of today’s 20, running roughly left to right unlike today’s outward spiral.
But if you, like me, hoped that an old map would place the Faubourg St Germain squarely in the third as Poe wrote it, you’d be sorely disappointed. I had and still have no answer for this, dear reader, and few clues where to look. So, I went door to door.
Door to door work
In lieu of a specific address, I’d hoped to find some old hôtels particuliers – mansions like those that had sprung up on that once clear farmland. But with the Boulevard St Germain splitting the neighbourhood, the hôtels scattered. With the book only able to guide me so well, I instead had to trust to my own judgement – and an old map of the area.
Weaving through the neighbourhood, it was to the doors I found myself drawn. They hinted at hidden findings and secretive individuals – and the Paris of the Edgar Allan Poe story. By the time I reached the former Rue Saint-Dominique, swallowed by the thoroughfare, the city gave over entirely to fiction.
Between numbers 213 and 217 once stood the hôtels Neufchâtel, Béthune, Châtillon and La Trémoille. Built by Pierre Cailleteau in 1708, they upset locals with their incongruous design and unsettling proportions. Gothic characteristics to be sure, even if the style was not – and a compelling candidate for the mansion in which Poe’s characters spent their summer.
There stood, when I arrived, a grand complex. The hôtels were now an engineering school – where secrets were perhaps guarded less closely but where logic, as in the Paris of Edgar Allan Poe, was above all.
Using ratiocination to find the Paris of Edgar Allan Poe
We were strolling one night down a long dirty street, in the vicinity of the Palais Royal. 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 Théâtre des Variétés.’
Ratiocination, Dupin’s method of logic, is introduced thus.
The Palais Royal is only a short walk from the possible libraries where our characters first meet in their search for truth – and was originally built for the same Cardinal Richelieu for whom the National Library is named. During their fifteen minutes of silence, Dupin makes a series of deductions as to where the narrator’s mind is wandering. But as I wandered through the Palais Royal and the sun set over the garden, I could share in the Chevalier’s confidence. All that remained uncovered in the Paris of Edgar Allan Poe – and the fictionalised settings of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” – was to find the real location of the Rue Morgue.
The murders in the Rue Morgue
‘EXTRAORDINARY MURDERS. – This morning, about three o’clock, the inhabitants of the Quartier St Roch were aroused from sleep by a succession of terrific shrieks, issuing, apparently, from the fourth story of a house in the Rue Morgue…’
Where is the Rue Morgue in Paris? Is the Rue Morgue a real place? With my copy of Poe’s works in hand and a metro ticket tucked halfway through the story, it was time to find out.
There are some clues. And while I am no C. Auguste Dupin, I hoped they would serve me well enough. Fifteen minutes before their discovery of the murders – precisely the moment their conversation quiets down and Dupin’s ratiocination spins up – the characters pass “from the Rue C–– into the thoroughfare where we stood.” In the vicinity of the Palais Royal, the best candidate for this street is Rue Colbert. It’s a side street around the Bibliothèque Richelieu, adjoining to Rue de Richelieu – itself a key indicator of the fictional Rue Morgue’s location in Paris.
Rue Morgue is later described by Poe’s narrator as “one of those miserable thoroughfares which intervene between the Rue Richelieu and the Rue St Roch.” This – along with the approximate 15-minute distance on foot between it and Rue Colbert – drew a small search area. The Rue Morgue was mostly likely to be contained within the few blocks bordered by the corners of Rue des Petits Champs/Rue Saint-Roch and Rue Saint-Honoré/Rue de Richelieu.
But the countless streets within – and the Avenue de l’Opéra, another of Hausmann’s grand designs, slicing through the space – meant that my search would surely take me into the night.
Lost in the Paris of Edgar Allan Poe
The neighbourhood bustled with Asian restaurants, fashionable boutiques and the locals keen to be seen in them. It was hardly the setting one would expect from Poe’s story. Yet off the busy Avenue de l’Opéra, in windows overlooking the likes of Rue Thérèse, Rue Molière and Rue des Petits Champs itself, shadows moved.
I entered the web of streets and quickly lost track of my location. Street names were to be found on most corners, but not all – and as I followed my instincts as Dupin might have followed his, I stopped looking for the comforting blue markers at all.
In one particular courtyard on a street whose location I can only confirm as being within my aforementioned search area, apartments piled on top of one another. Gutters peeled away from their fixings on the walls. Window boxes grew wild, their contents spilling and obscuring the views of their neighbours. Stepping away from the gate, I realised the street had emptied. The sun was setting. A window slammed shut with the urgency of someone keeping something out. I wondered if it was me or if, from where they stood, they saw something I could not.
The real locations behind “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
Edgar Allan Poe’s detective story ends with the revelation that the perpetrator of the murders in the Rue Morgue is an orangutan escaped from captivity. My story ends with no such certainty. In the real world, ratiocination only gets one so far.
At the time of this writer’s visit, there were no libraries on Rue Montmartre. Yet the Bibliothèques Richelieu and Mazarine make compelling settings for the first meeting between C. Auguste Dupin and the story’s narrator. Here, they begin their searches for truth independently – but not for long.
In the Faubourg St Germain, the lavish hôtels particuliers are long gone. But behind worn doors – and especially behind the engineering school gates just off Boulevard St Germain – it’s easy to imagine the investigators receding into their thoughts, honing their powers of deduction and waiting for the moment to reveal their findings.
And surrounding the Palais Royal, streets that were once isolated – perfect for cases of murder and the conflicting stories they create – are now split open by Avenue de l’Opéra. Still, behind the windows, every resident no doubt has their secrets. These offer a possible answer to the question: Is the Rue Morgue a real place?
While the Paris of Edgar Allan Poe and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” doesn’t exist in its entirety in this reality – hardly a surprise considering he never visited the city – there are places where his world and ours overlap.
Your own ratiocination may uncover more.