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is autumn in Paris in the early 1840's. One evening, the Prefect of Police
calls upon the narrator and C. Auguste Dupin at their residence at No.
33 Rue Dunôt, Faubourg St. Germain. Dupin is an amateur detective
with extraordinary crime-solving abilities, as demonstrated when he solved
the famous and baffling case of the murders in the
the prefect needs help on another case. However, proud man that he is,
he tells his hosts that he and his men can no doubt manage the case themselves.
He simply wants to inform Dupin about it “because it is so excessively
odd." Dupin and the narrator agree to hear him out after the prefect first
pledges them to secrecy in regard to the details of the case.
is the gist of the case: A government official (referred to as “Minister
was seen purloining (stealing) a letter from the royal apartments. The
contents of the letter, if made public, would besmirch the honor of a woman
of very high station who had received it in the royal boudoir. While she
was reading it, a man of very exalted station entered the room–a man whom
she did not wish to see the letter. However, he entered so abruptly
that she did not have time to conceal it and left it on a table. A moment
later, the minister entered,
and with his “lynx eye," spotted the letter and the address on it and noticed
that the lady was acting strangely. He put two and two together, realizing
that she wanted to conceal its contents.
conducting business, he takes out a letter of his own (of minor importance),
pretends to read it, places it on the same table, then conducts further
business for about 15 minutes. When he leaves, he takes her letter
as if it were his own. In the presence of the other exalted person, the
lady dared not protest lest she call attention to the letter and its secret
the lady’s letter in his possession, the minister now holds power over
her. In fact, since taking it, he has already used it for political purposes.
The lady then turned to prefect for help with an offer of a reward. The
prefect says he has since ransacked the minister’s residence when he was
not at home but has failed to find the letter. He and his men took furniture
apart, probed chair cushions with needles, and scrutinized everything–mirrors,
bedding, curtains and carpets, and even the moss between bricks on the
grounds of the residence. When the narrator suggests that the minister
may have hidden the letter at another location, Dupin rules out this possibility,
saying it had to be readily available–on a moment’s notice–should the minister
need to use it against the woman. Therefore, he says, it is somewhere on
the minister’s premises.
minister does not carry the letter with him, either, the Prefect says,
for his own men–pretending to be footpads (robbers) thoroughly searched
might have spared yourself this trouble," said Dupin. "[The minister],
I presume, is not altogether a fool, and, if not, must have anticipated
these waylayings, as a matter of course."
altogether a fool," said the the prefect, "but then he is a poet, which
I take to be only one removed from a fool."
Dupin advises the
minister to search the premises again. The prefect leaves, depressed.
month later, he returns, having again searched the premises again to no
avail. He says the reward has been doubled but does not specify the amount.
However, he says he is willing to give his own paycheck of 50,000 francs
to anyone who can retrieve the letter. Dupin opens a drawer and removes
a checkbook, saying, “You may as well fill me up a check for the amount
mentioned. When you have signed it, I will hand you the letter."
narrator and the prefect are astonished. Speechless, the prefect stares
at Dupin, then takes up the checkbook and writes a check for the amount
designated. After he gives it to Dupin, the latter opens an escritoire,
takes a letter from it, and gives it to the prefect. The policeman takes
it “in a perfect agony of joy, checks the contents, then rushes out.
says the prefect’s methods in searching for the letter were thorough but
ill-suited to the case, saying he attempted to fit his crime-solving schemes
to his Procrustean resources. Dupin says the police went wrong when they
failed to put themselves in the place of the minister; what they did instead
was to ask where they themselves would hide the letter, then proceeded
to look in the selected places. Moreover, the police used only logical,
methodical reasoning. The minister, on the other hand, used not only logical
reasoning but also intuitive and creative thinking. Although he is well
known as a proficient mathematician, it is his talent as a poet–a talent
that the prefect looks down on–that helps him to outthink logical thinkers.
Consequently, he has an advantage over the police–but not Dupin.
says he suspected that the minister had fooled the police by placing the
letter in plain sight. Following up on this suspicion, he visited the minister
at his residence and engaged him in a conversation about a topic he knew
would interest him. All the while, Dupin’s eyes roved about the room. On
a writing table were various routine letters and other papers in disarray.
On the same table were books and musical instruments. By and by, Dupin
directed his attention to a card rack hanging from a brass knob below the
projecting shelf of a mantel. In it were several visiting cards and a crumpled
letter torn nearly in half as if to suggest that it was of little importance.
The appearance of the letter had been altered in other ways–all giving
the impression that it was inconsequential.
spent a while longer talking with the minister, then left. However, he
deliberately left a gold snuff box on the table. The next morning, he returned
to pick up the snuff box. After he and the minister resumed their conversation
of the previous day, they heard a gunshot and screams outside. The minister
went to a window, opened it, and looked out. Meanwhile, Dupin snatched
the letter and replaced it with a copy whose outward appearance was made
to look like the original.
narrator asks why Dupin did not take the letter on the first visit and
why Dupin replaced it with a copy on the second. If he had taken it on
the first visit without replacing it with a copy, Dupin says, the minister
or his servants may have noticed it was missing–then killed him. Furthermore,
allowing the minister to believe that the letter remains in his possession
sets him up for a downfall later. Here’s why: He has been using the letter
to blackmail a royal personage. When he next tries to use it to his advantage,
she can refuse to cooperate. If he produces the letter to scandalize her
in public, he will scandalize only himself. Thus, she now has him in her
I should like very well
to know the precise character of his thoughts, when, being defied by her
whom the Prefect terms 'a certain personage,' he is reduced to opening
the letter which I left for him in the card-rack," Dupin says.
narrator asks whether Dupin wrote anything on the copy. Dupin replies,
"At Vienna once, [he] did me an evil turn, which I told him, quite good-humoredly,
that I should remember. So, as I knew he would feel some curiosity in regard
to the identity of the person who had outwitted him, I thought it a pity
not to give him a clew."
inside the letter he wrote a quotation from a French play that, in effect,
tells the minister that Dupin has gotten even.
The action takes place in
Paris in the early 1840's.
C. August Dupin:
Young gentleman with an exceptional ability to solve problems. He is especially
adept at solving mysteries that baffle the police.
Dupin's friend, who tells the story of one of Dupin's investigations.
Prefect of Police:
Policeman who failed to solve a crime involving a stolen letter.
Clever official who stole the letter and is using its contents to blackmail
a woman of royal status.
Unnamed Woman of Royal
Status: She needs to retrieve the stolen letter because its contents,
if made public, would deal a severe blow to her reputation.
Unnamed Man of Royal
Status: He is unaware of the contents of the letter. The woman needs
to make sure he never sees the letter.
of Work and Publication Date
“The Purloined Letter" falls
into the general category of short story and the specific category of detective
story. It was first published in The Gift in January 1845.
Purloined means stolen.
Hence, the story could have been entitled "The Stolen Letter." However,
purloin has a connotation that steal does not have–that is,
to take something by a breach of trust.
The theme is straightforward
and simple: how a superior thinker solves a baffling puzzle. In this short
story, as opposed to Poe’s stories of terror and the supernatural, there
are no hidden messages, no allegories.
The climax of “The Purloined
Letter" occurs when Dupin announces that he has retrieved the stolen letter.
First Three Detective
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,"
"The Mystery of Marie Roget," and "The Purloined letter set a milestone
in literature as the first three detective stories ever written. They are
sometimes referred to as tales of ratiocination (rash e aw sin A shun),
the process of using cold, objective logic–including deduction and induction–to
solve a problem or a mystery. However, the central character of the stories–the
brilliant amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin–relies as much on intuition
as on logic. As Richard Wilbur observes, “Dupin, although Poe describes
his mental operations as ‘analytic’ and as based on a psychological calculus
of probabilities, is actually representative of a pure poetic intuition
bordering on omniscience." Later writers used the detective-story ingredients
Poe introduced, including a seemingly insoluble mystery, stymied police,
and a superior thinker who solves the mystery and explains in detail how
he did it.
Edgar Allan Poe was born
on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was
taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman
in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather.
At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools
there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied
at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S.
Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After
beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his
young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined
the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while,
he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his
poem “The Raven" in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international
fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented
the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an
outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never
really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several
people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble
paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing
cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.
Questions and Writing Topics
Do you agree with Dupin that
a police investigator should rely as much on intuition and imagination
as on logic and science?
What do you think was the secret
message in the letter?
Read both "The Purloined Letter"
and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." The write profile
about Dupin, focusing primarily on his dominant personality trait.
"hid" the letter in plain sight. Does this ploy sound plausible?
Can you think of movies or TV
series that imitate the way Poe told his tale? Example: Columbo.
Write a short detective story
that imitates the writing methods Poe uses.
Write an essay comparing and
contrasting the importance of intuition vs the importance of logic in "The