This, possibly the greatest of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories involving the exploits of C. Auguste Dupin, is presented in an outstanding episode of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater dated January 7, 1975. It should be made clear at the beginning that the episode of CBSRMT, entitled "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", is an imaginative interpretation of Poe's story and not strictly a retelling.
It sounds like, and is, a radio drama with sound effects, a setting, a cast of characters, a plot and a resolution. The primary characters are: (1) The Victims: Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter Camille; (2) The Investigators: Police Constable Pierre Musette, his fiancee' Yvette and private citizen C. Auguste Dupin; and (3) The Suspects: French sailor Jules de Berg and an unknown accomplice.
One evening at about seven o'clock in Paris, an elderly lady and her adult daughter are savagely attacked in their fourth-floor apartment by an unknown intruder. The first official on the scene is a gendarme who upon entering the premises beholds a scene that causes him to gasp in horror. I will not provide further details here, but will leave it to the curious to obtain a copy of the work itself or listen to the episode.
From the very beginning police are baffled as to motive. They find a bag of gold pieces [Napoleons] strewn about the premises. and so are able to rule out theft or robbery very quickly. But why would anyone commit such violence against two helpless and seemingly innocent people? Was revenge a possibility? The only clue that might lead to a solution to the crime, they think, is that at the time of the murder neighbors heard two voices raised in argument coming from what seemed to be Madame Lespanaye's apartment. One they confidently identified as French. The other, which was louder and more strident, some thought was Italian, some German, and some Russian. One chilling detail is that the Frenchman seemed to be remonstrating with the other and beseeching him to stop.
Eventually the gendarme, Pierre, seeks the assistance of C. Auguste Dupin, who is described as "only a private citizen with a gift for solving mysteries that others can't solve." Dupin soon sets about discovering the greatest mystery associated with the case: how did the intruders gain entrance when the only door was bolted from the inside and the only two windows nailed shut? He soon learns that one of the nails was broken off, and concludes that only a person with extraordinary upper-body strength, such as a sailor accustomed to climbing masts, could have scaled a drainpipe near the window up to the fourth floor and raised the window with the broken nail.
At this point Dupin and the police, having narrowed down the type of person capable of such a feat, set about identifying and apprehending the murderer. Opportunity arises when Pierre's fiancee Yvette is brutally assaulted in her own apartment by possibly the same person who killed Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter Camille. Dupin thinks that Yvette's attacker may have been attracted by her perfume, "Nuit Passionnee," which Pierre certainly found exciting and to which Dupin himself was not entirely immune.
So they lay a trap, using a willing Yvette as bait. She douses herself with the perfume, and the three of them sit in darkness and wait. Soon a huge figure appears at the window, enters, and Pierre shoots to kill.
Not long thereafter a sailor named Jules de Berg willingly turns himself in and relates the entire incident as to how Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter came to their deaths. While in Borneo de Berg had acquired a large orangutan and then brought it to Paris hoping to sell it. After that he moved into a basement apartment in the same building as Madame L'Espanaye and Yvette. The beast was immensely powerful but of a placid disposition. On the fatal evening de Berg came home to find it looking in a mirror and trying to shave with a straight razor as it had observed its master doing. When de Berg scolded it the animal ran out of the apartment and, attracted by a light in the L'Espanaye premises, climbed the drainpipe and went inside. De Berg followed, and surmised that what led to the slaying was the screaming of the two women, which frightened the beast into a savage frenzy.
I think that most devotees of old-time radio would prefer hearing the radio drama to listening to a reading of Poe's great story, although both would be extremely enjoyable. The episode places the time at "about seven o'clock in the evening" on the fourth floor of an apartment building in the Rue Morgue, a street in a rundown section of Paris.
There are numerous sound effects, voices and accents and visual and other sensory images in the radio drama as well as dramatic musical bridges between scenes. At the scene of the crime we hear the babble of excited voices and suspenseful music. The door splinters when Pierre breaks it down with his shoulder.
Throughout the play the French accents sound authentic and are charming to the ear, In a number of scenes we hear the sound of horse hooves on the pavement and of horses neighing. All knocking at doors is loud and urgent. Many sounds of footsteps occur throughout. We hear Yvette's terrific screams when she is assaulted. Darkness is used for dramatic effect on more than one occasion. Pierre, Yvette and Dupin await the reappearance of her attacker with all the lamps extinguished in her apartment.
To this point I have written little about Poe's story, but it differs from the CBSRMT episode in many respects, several of which favor the story over the play and some of which are merely noteworthy. All my direct quotations from the story are from The Norton Critical Edition of The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe dated 2004. As one might expect, Poe's details are usually more descriptive and vivid. He gives the time of the savage attacks upon Madame L'Espanaye and her adult daughter Camille as about three o'clock in the morning at a house (not an apartment building) in the Quartier St. Roch. In the episode the most evident clue at the scene of the crime is that a bag of gold pieces (Napoleons) have been strewn all over the floor. In the story we find that "Upon the floor were found four Napoleons, an ear-ring of topaz, three large silver spoons, three smaller spoons bearing the metal d'Alger (the Medal of Algiers), and two bags containing nearly four thousand francs in gold" (p.247).
Concerning the means of entrance and escape by the "assassins" (p.257), Poe writes that "About five foot and a half from the [window] casement in question there runs a lightning rod" (not a drainpipe as in the radio script). "The shutters, of the peculiar kind called by Parisian carpenters ferrades, were fully three feet and a half broad" and opened outward from the windows. So a person of extraordinary strength and dexterity could have grasped the top of a shutter with one hand and swung either way between the lightening rod and the window.
Now as to the solution of the crime and the conclusion of events. In the radio drama Dupin is wrong about two things: until late in the episode he still thinks there were two murderers; also at one point he tells Pierre that there had to be a reason for the assault and at another he says that what is remarkable is that there appears to have been no reason for it. In the short story Dupin (p.259) refers to "the startling absence of motive in a murder so singularly atrocious as this." The two women were conclusively mauled, throttled and mutilated, it turns out, by a ferocious beast which the sailor had brought back to France from Borneo. Poe writes (p.265) "The screams and struggles of the old lady (during which the hair was torn from her head) had the effect of changing the probably pacific purposes of the Ourang Outang into those of wrath."
There is a huge difference in the ending between the episode and the story, and I think it favors Poe. In the radio drama the three investigators successfully lure Yvette's attacker back to her apartment for a second attempt on her life by having Yvette douse herself with perfume, which Dupin surmises and de Berg later confirms was what drew the beast to her in the first place. After Pierre kills the ape, he takes de Berg into custody and escorts him to police headquarters to be booked for murder.
In the short story Dupin never doubts the innocence of the sailor. After the orangutan escapes and commits the atrocities, Dupin and the police of course wish to locate it before it slaughters any more innocent French citizens. They find it, capture it, and place it in "a livery stable in the Rue Dubourg" for its own safety and that of others (p. 263).
Dupin attracts the owner by placing an advertisement in Le Monde, "a paper devoted to the shipping interest, and much sought by sailors" (p.261). When the owner Monsieur Du Bon appears, Dupin assures him that he knows he is innocent and only wants his help in determining all the relevant details of exactly what happened. After cooperating Du Bon is released and sells the ouangutan for a substantial amount of money. I think this is a more satisfactory if not more plausible ending than that of the CBSRMT episode and appeals to the heart more than to the head.