A reading of an early detective story
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) often gets the credit for inventing the detective story. Although some earlier candidates have been proposed – such as E. T. A. Hoffmann’s ‘Das Fräulein von Scuderi’ (1819), and ‘The Secret Cell’ (1837), written by Poe’s own publisher, William Evans Burton – it was Poe who really showed what could be done with the detective story form. ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844) is one of three ground-breaking stories Poe wrote featuring C. Auguste Dupin, his amateur sleuth without whom the world would never have had Sherlock Holmes or, one suspects, virtually any other fictional detective.
You can read ‘The Purloined Letter’ here. But how should we analyse this pioneering detective story? First, a quick summary of the story, which makes Poe’s influence on Conan Doyle apparent. The narrator and his friend, C. Auguste Dupin (later to provide the model for Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes respectively) are smoking together one autumn evening in Paris, when the door to Dupin’s room opens and a French policeman enters. He has come to share the details of a case the police have been working on – one that is simple, yet odd, in its details.
A letter containing delicate information has been stolen, or ‘purloined’: an important woman was in her boudoir when the letter arrived (presumably written by a man with whom she was having an affair) but as she was reading it, her husband came into the room. She placed the letter down on a table. A minister, identified only as ‘D—’, then entered the room as a guest, and spotted the letter, recognised the handwriting, and guessed the lady’s scandalous secret. Producing his own letter from his pocket, he placed it down on the table next to the incriminating letter while he was talking to the lady and her husband, and then discreetly picked up the other letter (the scandalous one) in full view of the couple. The lady saw him do this, but obviously couldn’t draw attention to the act in front of her husband, because then the letter’s contents would become known to him.
The police have searched the minister’s rooms from top to bottom, while he’s out, in the hope of locating the letter he stole. They are sure that he would not be carrying it around on his person (in case he’s mugged or accosted while out and about) but, equally, they know he would need to be able to access the letter at short notice, so wouldn’t have stored it somewhere else. Yet the police, despite searching everywhere in the minister’s rooms – behind the mirrors, under the carpets, in the cellars, within his books – have been unable to find the purloined letter. Dupin advises making another thorough search of the premises, but the police prefect says it would do no good.
About a month later, the prefect returns to Dupin’s rooms, and reports to the detective and the narrator that he did undertaken another search of the minister’s rooms, but still didn’t manage to locate the purloined letter. Dupin asks what reward is being offered for the return of the letter. The prefect says he would hand over a cheque for 50,000 francs to the person who could return the purloined letter to him. Dupin announces that he will hand over the letter to the prefect if the policeman gives him the 50,000 francs. The prefect, shocked and overjoyed, hands over the cheque, and leaves with the letter.
Dupin, a master of logical analysis, then explains how he managed to solve the mystery of the purloined letter, beginning by reminiscing about his schooldays, and a clever schoolboy he knew who played a game of ‘even and odd’ with his peers. A boy would place either an odd or even number of marbles in his hand, and the clever schoolboy would then try to guess. He might guess wrong the first time, but by analysing how clever (or stupid) his opponent was, he would then be able to second-guess his opponent’s next move (e.g. a stupid boy who picked up an even number for the first game would have just the right amount of wit to change the number to odd for the second; a cleverer person would try to outthink the guesser, by putting himself in the shoes of the guesser and trying to out-reason him).
In summary, Dupin says that the problem with the police prefect is that he misjudged what kind of man he was dealing with: he wrote off the minister’s intellect because the minister writes poetry and is therefore, in the policeman’s view, a ‘fool’. But Dupin – who admits to having written ‘doggerel’ of his own – realises that this marks out the minister a man of superior, rather than inferior intellect. Armed with this knowledge, Dupin dons a disguise and calls upon the minister at his rooms. He soon finds the purloined letter, turned inside out and stuffed into a different envelope, in plain sight on the mantelpiece in the minister’s rooms. He deliberately leaves his snuff-box on the table, so he’ll have a reason to return the following day to retrieve it, on the pretext that he’d forgotten it. When he returns to the minister’s rooms, having arranged for a paid accomplice to fire a musket in the street so as to cause a diversion, Dupin then goes to the mantelpiece, takes the letter, replaces it with a copy he had prepared at home to resemble the original, and leaves with the purloined letter in his possession.
In the substitute letter, Dupin reveals that he left a sheet on which he had written words taken from Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon’s Atrée: ‘A design so deadly, if not worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes.’ The lines allude to the story from mythology, in which King Atreus of Mycenae, in revenge for his brother Thyestes’ seduction of his wife, kills Thyestes’ sons and serves them to him in a pie. The reference is Dupin’s way of saying he has discovered the minister’s plan, and foiled his scheme. (Dupin also reveals that he owes the minister some payback after ‘an evil turn’ the minister did to him in Vienna.)
‘The Purloined Letter’ has the force of a fairy tale or parable: there is a purity to its plot, a simplicity, an ability to resonate with deeper philosophical meaning. This is probably why so many twentieth-century thinkers, from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to the founder of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, were so interested in it. The epigraph, which Poe attributes to the Roman writer and philosopher Seneca, translates as: ‘Nothing is as hostile to wisdom as too much subtlety.’ The idea of the purloined letter ‘hiding in plain sight’ makes the story archetypal in its ability to carry symbolic significance. It seems to invite interpretation as a parable about the dangers of over-interpretation. T. S. Eliot once complained that an early reviewer of The Waste Land had ‘over-understood’ the poem. In summary, it’s perhaps possible to become too obsessed with understanding something, with the result that one misses the obvious – in this case, the fact that the letter has been placed in just about the most visible and easily discovered place imaginable … with the result that it isn’t discovered (at least not by the police prefect).
In this story, too, we also see so many of the features that Conan Doyle would go on to use to such effect in his Sherlock Holmes stories. Not only is Holmes, like Dupin, a master of logical analysis and an amateur sleuth working independently of the official police, but Holmes, too, will go on to use the idea of distraction in order to locate a missing or reclaim a missing item from a criminal (most famously seen in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’).
‘The Purloined Letter’ isn’t perfect: it’s really a ten-page story spun or spread out to double that length, which weakens the effect of the reveal, and Dupin’s long-winded explanation of this theory of ratiocination is less effective by being advanced using a few too many examples from logic and the world of games. But we can forgive Poe these failings, for with this story – and with the methods of analysis and deduction Dupin practises in the other two Poe stories in which he features – he was inventing the modern detective story. Writers have been purloining, and reinventing, Poe’s central idea ever since.
If you found this short summary and analysis of ‘The Purloined Letter’ useful, you can continue your Poe odyssey with our pick of his greatest stories, his poem ‘To Helen’, his classic tale ‘William Wilson’, and our pick of interesting Poe facts.
Image: Illustration to ‘The Purloined Letter’ by Edgar Allan Poe, by Frederic Lix (c. 1864), via Wikimedia Commons.