By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
.......It 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 Rue Morgue.
.......Now 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.
.......Here is the gist of the case: A government official (referred to as Minister D ") 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 rooma 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.
.......After conducting business, he took out a letter of his own (of minor importance), pretended to read it, placed it on the same table, then conducted further business for about fifteen minutes. When he left, he took 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 contents.
.......With the ladys letter in his possession, the minister now holds power over her. In fact, he has already used it for political purposes. The prefect says the lady turned to him for help, offering a reward.
.......When the minister was not at home, the prefect ransacked the ministers residence but failed to find the letter. He and his men took furniture apart, probed chair cushions with needles, and scrutinized everythingmirrors, 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 availableon a moments noticeshould the minister need to use it against the woman. Therefore, he says, it is somewhere on the ministers premises.
.......The minister does not carry the letter with him, either, the prefect says, for his own menpretending to be footpads (robbers)thoroughly searched the minister.
......."You 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."
......."Not 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.
.......A month later, he returns to the residence of the narrator and Dupin after again searching the premises of the minister 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."
.......The narrator and the prefect are astonished. Speechless, the prefect stares at Dupin, then 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.
.......Dupin says the prefects methods in searching for the letter were thorough but ill-suited to the case. The police went wrong, he says, 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 the minister is well known as a proficient mathematician, it was his talent as a poeta talent that the prefect looks down onthat helped him to outthink the police.
.......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, Dupins 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 the letter was inconsequential.
.......Dupin spent a while longer talking with the minister. Before going out, 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.
.......The narrator asks why Dupin did not take the letter on the first visit. If he had taken it on the first visit without replacing it with a copy, Dupin says, the minister or his servants might have noticed it was missingthen killed him. Furthermore, allowing the minister to believe that the letter remains in his possession sets him up for a downfall. Heres why: He has been using the letter to blackmail a royal personage. When he next tries to use it against her, 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 power.
......."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.
.......The 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.
.......So, 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.
.......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 havethat is, to take something by a breach of
.......The theme is straightforward and simple: how a superior thinker solves a baffling puzzle. In this short story, as opposed to Poes 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 Stories
.......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 logicincluding deduction and inductionto solve a problem or a mystery. However, the central character of the storiesthe brilliant amateur detective C. Auguste Dupinrelies 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.
.......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 coupleJohn Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poes
godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools there.
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