Poe’s Short Stories – “The Purloined Letter” (1844)

Summary
In a small room in Paris, an unnamed narrator, who also
narrates “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” sits quietly with his
friend, C. Auguste Dupin. He ponders the murders in the Rue Morgue, which
Dupin solved in that story. Monsieur G——, the prefect of the Paris
police, arrives, having decided to consult Dupin again. The prefect
presents a case that is almost too simple: a letter has been taken
from the royal apartments. The police know who has taken it: the
Minister D——, an important government official. According to the
prefect, a young lady possessed the letter, which contains information
that could harm a powerful individual. When the young lady was first
reading the letter, the man whom it concerned came into the royal
apartments. Not wanting to arouse his suspicion, she put it down
on a table next to her. The sinister Minister D—— then walked in
and noted the letter’s contents. Quickly grasping the seriousness
of the situation, he produced a letter of his own that resembled
the important letter. He left his own letter next to the original one
as he began to talk of Parisian affairs. Finally, as he prepared
to leave the apartment, he purposely retrieved the lady’s letter
in place of his own. Now, the prefect explains, the Minister D——
possesses a great deal of power over the lady.
Dupin asks whether the police have searched the Minister’s
residence, arguing that since the power of the letter derives from
its being readily available, it must be in his apartment. The prefect responds
that they have searched the Minister’s residence but have not located
the letter. He recounts the search procedure, during which the police
systematically searched every inch of the hotel. In addition, the
letter could not be hidden on the Minister’s body because the police
have searched him as well. The prefect mentions that he is willing
to search long and hard because the reward offered in the case is
so generous. Upon Dupin’s request, the prefect reads him a physical
description of the letter. Dupin suggests that the police search
again.
One month later, Dupin and the narrator are again sitting together
when the prefect visits. The prefect admits that he cannot find
the letter, even though the reward has increased. The prefect says
that he will pay 50,000 francs to anyone
who obtains the letter for him. Dupin tells him to write a check
for that amount on the spot. Upon receipt of the check, Dupin hands
over the letter. The prefect rushes off to return it to its rightful
owner, and Dupin explains how he obtained the letter.
Dupin admits that the police are skilled investigators
according to their own principles. He explains this remark by describing
a young boy playing “even and odd.” In this game, each player must guess
whether the number of things (usually toys) held by another player
is even or odd. If the guesser is right, he gets one of the toys. If
he is wrong, he loses a toy of his own. The boy whom Dupin describes
plays the game well because he bases his guesses on the knowledge
of his opponent. When he faces difficulty, he imitates the facial
expression of his opponent, as though to understand what he thinks
and feels. With this knowledge, he often guesses correctly. Dupin
argues that the Paris police do not use this strategy and therefore
could not find the letter: the police think only to look for a letter in
places where they themselves might hide it.
Dupin argues that the Minister D—— is intelligent enough
not to hide the letter in the nooks and crannies of his apartment—exactly where
the police first investigate. He describes to the narrator a game
of puzzles in which one player finds a name on a map and tells the
other player to find it as well. Amateurs, says Dupin, pick the names
with the smallest letters. According to Dupin’s logic, the hardest
names to find are actually those that stretch broadly across the
map because they are so obvious.
With this game in mind, Dupin recounts the visit he made
to the Minister’s apartment. After surveying the Minister’s residence, Dupin
notices a group of visiting cards hanging from the mantelpiece.
A letter accompanies them. It has a different exterior than that
previously described by the prefect, but Dupin also observes that
the letter appears to have been folded back on itself. He becomes
sure that it is the stolen document. In order to create a reason
for returning to the apartment, he purposely leaves behind his snuffbox.
When he goes back the next morning to retrieve it, he also arranges
for someone to make a commotion outside the window while he is in
the apartment. When the Minister rushes to the window to investigate
the noise, Dupin replaces the stolen letter with a fake. He justifies
his decision to leave behind another letter by predicting that the
Minister will embarrass himself when he acts in reliance upon the
letter he falsely believes he still possesses. Dupin remarks that
the Minister once wronged him in Vienna and that he has pledged
not to forget the insult. Inside the fake letter, then, Dupin inscribes,
a French poem that translates into English, “So baneful a scheme,
if not worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes.”
Analysis
Along with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined
Letter” establishes a new genre of short fiction in American literature: the
detective story. Poe considered “The Purloined Letter” his best detective
story, and critics have long identified the ways in which it redefines
the mystery genre—it turns away from action toward intellectual
analysis, for example. As opposed to the graphic violence of “The
Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which features bodily mutilation and
near decapitation by a wild animal, “The Purloined Letter” focuses
more dryly on the relationship between the Paris police and Dupin,
between the ineffectual established order and the savvy private
eye. When the narrator opens the story by reflecting upon the gruesome
murders in the Rue Morgue that Dupin has helped to solve, Poe makes
it clear that the prior story is on his mind. Poe sets up the cool
reason of “The Purloined Letter” in opposition to the violence of
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The battered and lacerated bodies
of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” are replaced by the bloodless,
inanimate stolen letter. However, just as the Paris police are unable
to solve the gory crime of passion in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,”
they are similarly unable to solve this apparently simple mystery,
in which the solution is hidden in plain sight.
Poe moves away from violence and action by associating
Dupin’s intelligence with his reflectiveness and his radical theories
about the mind. This tale does not have the constant action of stories
like “The Cask of Amontillado” or “The Black Cat.” Instead, this
tale features the narrator and Dupin sitting in Dupin’s library
and discussing ideas. The tale’s action, relayed by flashbacks,
takes place outside the narrative frame. The narrative itself is
told through dispassionate analysis. The intrusions of the prefect
and his investigations of the Minister’s apartment come off as unrefined
and unintellectual. Poe portrays the prefect as simultaneously the
most active and the most unreflective character in the story. Dupin’s
most pointed criticisms of the prefect have less to do with a personal attack
than with a critique of the mode of investigation employed by the
police as a whole. Dupin suggests that the police cannot think outside
their own standard procedures. They are unable to place themselves
in the minds of those who actually commit crimes. Dupin’s strategy
of solving crimes, on the other hand, involves a process of thinking
like someone else. Just as the boy playing “even and odd” enters
his opponent’s mind, Dupin inhabits the consciousness of the criminal.
He does not employ fancy psychological theories, but rather imitates
the train of thought of his opponent. He succeeds in operating one
step ahead of the police because he thinks as the Minister does.
This crime-solving technique of thinking like the criminal
suggests that Dupin and the Minister are more doubles than opposites. The
revenge aspect of the story, which Dupin promises after the Minister
offends him in Vienna, arguably derives from their threatening similarity.
Dupin’s note inside the phony letter, translated “So baneful a scheme,
if not worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes,” suggests the rivalry
that accompanies brotherly minds. In the French dramatist Crébillon’s
early-eighteenth-century tragedy Atrée et Thyeste (or Atreus
and Thyestes), Thyestes seduces the wife of his brother,
Atreus. In retaliation, Atreus murders the sons of Thyestes and
serves them to their father at a feast. Dupin implies here that Thyestes
deserves more punishment than Atreus because he commits the original
wrong. In contrast, Atreus’s revenge is legitimate because it repays
the original offense. Dupin considers his own deed to be revenge
and thereby morally justified.