The purloined letter is a short story by the American author Edgar Allan Poe. It is the third of his three detective stories with the fictional C. Auguste Dupin, the other two are “The Murders on the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”.
These stories are considered important precursors to modern detective storytelling. It first appeared in the 1845 annual literary publication The Gift (1844) and was soon reprinted in numerous magazines and newspapers.
Summary and synapse
The purloined letter is the third story in which star detective C. Auguste Dupin appears, and as the character has already been introduced to readers, Edgar Allan Poe jumps straight into action.
C. Auguste Dupin is discussing his closed cases with the narrator when they are interrupted by the arrival of the Paris prefect of the Police, G. As expected, the prefect has a case of Dupin.
As the title of the story suggests, a letter has been stolen. The letter belongs to an unnamed woman. It turns out that Minister D is using the content of the letter to blackmail the woman.
The prefect tells Dupin that he believes the content of the letter remains a top secret because it is being used to exploit the woman and not destroy her reputation. He also believes that Minister D has the letter in his possession because it is the only way to protect the letter and use it as blackmail.
Unfortunately, a thorough search of Minister D’s hotel has not been successful. The Prefect describes the letter, and Dupin keeps the description of the letter along with all the relevant information in memory.
The story is one month ahead. The prefect continues to search for the letter and begins to despair. He offers Dupin 50,000 francs (part of the reward money for the return of the letter) if he can help him. Dupin accepts the prize money, then reproduces the letter, which he has already found.
Dupin explains to the narrator how he tracked down the letter. He says the police underestimated Minister D because he writes poetry. Dupin visited Minister D in his hotel room. Instead of hiding the letter, Minister D left it out in the open.
However, she tried hard to hide it. He wrote a different address on the opposite side of the letter. Dupin stole the letter, after carrying out with a forgery that included the following note: ‘If such a sinister design is not worthy of Atreus, it is worthy of Tiestes.’
Genre: Police history
While history has traditionally been viewed as an early prototype of detective fiction, it has also been the subject of intense academic debate, especially between the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who held history as a model for ambiguous narrative, and the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who maintained that it was a sexual allegory.
- The narrator: Dupin’s friend who enjoys sitting with him and listening to him solve cases.
- C. Auguste Dupin: French private detective who excels at examining cases and solving them primarily from his own home, earns the Prefect’s one-year salary for obtaining the missing letter.
- The Prefect: The head of the French police department who explains the case to Dupin and his friend and then pays Dupin for solving it.
- The Minister: The criminal who stole the letter from the royal woman and hid it in plain sight at her home.
Dupin is not a professional detective. In The Morgue Street Murders, Dupin takes the case for fun and declines a financial reward. In The purloined Letter, however, Dupin takes the case for financial gain and personal revenge.
He is not motivated by the search for the truth, emphasized by the lack of information about the content of the purloined letter. Dupin’s innovative method of solving the mystery is to try to identify himself with the criminal. The minister and Dupin have equal minds, combining skills of mathematician and poet, their battle of wits is threatened to end in a stalemate. Dupin wins because of his moral strength: the minister is “without principles”, a blackmailer who gains power by exploiting the weakness of others.
This story has the force of a fairy tale or parable: there is a purity in its plot, a simplicity, an ability to resonate with deep philosophical meaning. This is probably why so many 20th-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.” It seems to invite interpretation as a parable about the dangers of overinterpretation. T. S. Eliot once complained that a previous critic of The Waste Land had “misunderstood” the poem.
In short, it may be 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 the most visible and easy-to-discover place imaginable … with the result not being discovered (at least not by the prefect of the police).