The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1845

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by Edgar Allan Poe, 1845

For a story so simple on its surface, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter" is a favorite of literary critics, who see an endless succession of complications beneath the tale's elementary plot. The plot may be summed up in a sentence. When a police official cannot discover the whereabouts of a stolen letter, he consults a private detective, who quickly concludes that the thief has left the letter in plain sight in his rooms, thus thwarting investigators who expected it to be hidden. "The Purloined Letter" belongs to a group of detective stories that Poe called tales of ratiocination, or reasoning, as opposed to typical sleuth work such as gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses. The reader's sense of excited participation is grounded not in the facts of the case but in the duel of wits that occurs between formidable antagonists.

Although the plot of "The Purloined Letter" is predicated on intense cerebral activity, the story begins in a decidedly dreamy mood, with the anonymous narrator and his friend C. Auguste Dupin "enjoying the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum" in Dupin's library. As the smoke from his pipe curls about him, the narrator establishes a context of crime solving as he confesses that he has been thinking about two other mysteries deciphered by Dupin, the affair of the Rue Morgue and the murder of Marie Rogêt. As these are also the subjects of earlier stories by Poe, the reader is reminded not so subtly that the atmosphere in "The Purloined Letter" is as much literary as it is criminal.

The dreaminess of the two friends and fellow smokers is disturbed by the arrival of Monsieur G ——, prefect of the Paris police. G —— is a stock figure of early crime fiction. Like Inspector LeStrade in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and Inspector Japp in Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot series, G —— is a dogged if unimaginative policeman. He is a plodding nine-to-fiver always in pursuit of a villain he cannot catch without the assistance of a less predictable and more artistic detective whose startling insights are necessary to bring in the evildoer.

Dupin pointedly refuses to turn up the light in his little room, observing that, whatever problem G —— has brought to him, it is best examined in the dark. G —— is openly scornful of this idea, as he seems to be of nearly everything Dupin says, though clearly his scorn is a mask for both G —— 's awe at Dupin's brilliance and for his grudging realization of his own shortcomings as a crime solver. When Dupin suggests that "the very simplicity" of a crime that is "a little too plain" and "a little too self-evident" means that the solution is probably near at hand, G —— roars with contemptuous laughter, although his merriment has a decidedly nervous edge to it.

The crime is this: A statesman, Minister D ——, has stolen a letter from a "personage of most exalted station." There are hints that this member of the French royal family has been involved in a romantic intrigue, and the disclosure of the contents of the letter would evidently mean her downfall. For this reason G —— must use tact and stealth to solve the crime, and so he sends his men to explore every inch of D —— 's rooms during the minister's frequent absences. Poe devotes several pages to the thoroughness of these clandestine searches, which involve taking the tops off of tables, probing cushions and book covers with needles, and examining the rung of every chair with a microscope for telltale grains of sawdust.

The description of these police searches is the longest of any single section of the story so far, longer, for example, than the description of the crime itself. It establishes the meticulousness of G —— 's method; indeed, it shows that G —— is all method and little else. He is baffled by the thief's cleverness, since D —— is a poet, which, says the prefect, "I take to be only one remove from a fool." Taking a long and thoughtful draw on his pipe, Dupin agrees with G —— 's attitude toward poets, although he admits to having written doggerel himself.

It takes one to know one, of course, and in due time the poetic detective solves the mystery by duplicating the mental processes of the poetic thief. Actually, says Dupin, D —— is a mathematician as well as a poet, though were he a mathematician alone, he probably would have concealed the letter in a hollow chair leg, and G —— 's methods would have been enough to ensnare him. Good police methods result in the capture of most criminals, Dupin concedes, though when the criminal is superior, that is, is a poet, then the detective must be one as well.

What follows is a remarkable elaboration of the poetic detective's thought processes, a passage several times longer than the one detailing G —— 's physical methods. It is a monologue consisting partly of psychology and partly of logic, the whole of which is shot through with French and Latin phrases and algebraic formulae. The conclusion reached, however, is, as Dupin predicted in the story's opening paragraphs, one of utter simplicity, namely, that if the letter is not hidden, it must be in plain sight. In fact, the letter has been put into a soiled, crumpled envelope and thrust into a pasteboard rack designed to hold visitors' cards. A confederate of Dupin causes a disturbance in the street, and when D —— rushes to the window, Dupin takes the letter, replacing it with a mocking note of his own.

"The Purloined Letter" is a story that Poe himself especially liked. In a letter to James Russell Lowell, the author called it "perhaps the best of my tales of ratiocination." Poe was a tireless literary strategist, an outsider, as opposed to someone like Lowell, who was a member of a distinguished family and who was destined to be a Harvard professor and diplomat, and he played the game as vigorously as his personal failings allowed him to. Perhaps Poe's pride in "The Purloined Letter" stemmed from its being neither a political thriller nor a detective story but rather a complex literary game in which two poets vie for supremacy. Dupin and D —— are nearly equals; they might even share the same name. But Dupin is the better poet, and the better poet wins.

—David Kirby

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The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1845

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