#607: Little Fictions/Going Home – The Crime Stories of Edgar Allan Poe: ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844)

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For this, the third week of examining the hugely influential crime stories of Edgar Allan Poe, we come to the last of the tales to feature his genius amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin.

If you need to catch up, here are the links to all the discussions; remember, a SPOILER WARNING is in effect since these stories are so old that even Methuselah doesn’t remember them:

Week 1: ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841)
Week 2: ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’ (1842)
Week 3: ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844)
Week 4: ‘The Gold Bug’ (1843) and ‘Thou Art the Man’ (1844)
Week 5: ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1840), ‘Into the Maelstrom’ (1841), and ‘The Oblong Box’ (1844)

And so, the much-maligned impossible disappearance that is ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844).  Before Christian of Mysteries, Short and Sweet and I get into this one, a quick recap of the plot:

Dupin and his narrator-friend are enjoying a meerschaum pipe in the former’s apartments when the Prefect of the Parisian Police, referred to only as G―, calls in to request Dupin’s help on a particularly sensitive problem.

“I have received personal information, from a very high quarter, that a certain document, of the last importance, has been purloined from the royal apartments.  The individual who purloined it is know; this beyond a doubt; he was seen to take it.  It is known, also, that it still remains in his possession.”

The thief in question is an unscrupulous government minister called D―, and despite the best efforts of G― and his men to search the rooms of both D―’s dwelling and the dwellings either side, the purloined letter remains unfound.  Can Dupin offer any advice, to save the manipulation of the woman who is the rightful possessor of the letter by the underhanded D―?

The solution is very famous and much-discussed, but what of the story itself?  Let’s get into it…

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Jim: This is only the second time I’ve read ‘The Purloined Letter’ – the first being about 18 years ago — and, given how much I remember disliking it, I have to say that I really rather enjoyed it this time.  The effect of so many imitators producing lazy “Aha! But you didn’t think to look there!!” rip-offs is that the essential trick gets old, but Poe’s use of psychology to explain why this particular letter gets overlooked is surprisingly strong.

Christian: Hm… You’ll have to convince me a bit more before I’ll agree on that. Personally, I think that Poe is wrong in his contention that when you try to hide something on a map you should choose something with the biggest letters. I’ve tried it myself and it never works…   But I guess the reasoning as such holds. If the reader agrees with Poe, then everything in the story follows naturally and the hiding place will work.

Jim: Given that we’re near the start of the genre, it’s a good piece of “getting away with it the first time” — I always remember, as someone who wears glasses, playing a game of I-Spy as a child in which my opponent spied “something beginning with S” and I was guessing for aaaages before he told me it was “spectacles”.  No-one would get away with that now, but it made a huge impression on me that’s lasted nearly 30 years.  Plus, I’ve gone on to use it against fellow Spectaculators (as we call ourselves…) and it always goes down well.  For me, that’s what Poe gets away with here.

Christian: While I’m seeing the psychology of the solution differently to you, I will however agree that I found the story more pleasant than I was expecting it to be. Probably because in comparison with the other Dupin stories, this is concise and stays mainly with the main storyline throughout the whole tale.

Jim: We talked about the long introduction of ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and how, essentially, one could skip over that when reading the story in future.  Here, Poe seems to have learned that lesson and gets right into things.  There’s a lot of senseless maundering around later on — all that stuff about mathematicians is wearying in the extreme, and I say that as a mathematician — but he seems to be finding his narrative feet much more confidently.

Christian: Absolutely. Out of all these Poe stories we are discussing, this is the one you could pass off as a modern detective story to a reader who hasn’t read any of them before. And by “modern”, I mean 100 years old. 😊 As you say, there’s no unnecessary introduction where Poe pontificates and we head straight into the storyline from the first word.

As for the digs at mathematicians, I guess John Dickson Carr was influenced by more things from Poe than just the impossible crimes…

Jim: Ah, yes, Hag’s Nook (1933):

“Don’t mind him,”  [Fell] said, wheezing contemptuously. “He’s a stickler for things. Worst of all, the man’s a mathe­matician. Pah! A mathematician,” repeated Dr. Fell, glar­ing at his salad as though he expected to find a binomial theorem lurking in the lettuce. “He oughtn’t to talk.”

As if any self-respecting mathematician would hide a binomial theorem in a salad.  Honestly.  Everyone knows we keep them in a fruit loaf.

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There’s a sudden elevation in the perception of the professional police force in this one, isn’t there?

“The Parisian police are exceedingly able in their way.  They are persevering, ingenious, cunning, and thoroughly versed in the knowledge which their duties seem chiefly to demand.”

Sure it’s a little bit of a back-handed compliment, but certainly there appears to be a markedly more positive impression given of the rigour and intelligence of the police force when compared to ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’.  Do you think this is to heighten even further our esteem for Dupin when he’s the one to solve the case, or had enough changed in the real world for the police to warrant a more respectful opinion?

There were, what, three years between these two stories? I can’t say that I think the perception of the police had changed much in those few years. You could be right that Poe intended it to show Dupin in an even better light, I hadn’t considered that. On the other hand, G—, the Prefect, continues to be a complete buffoon, so Poe isn’t all that complimentary to the lawmen.

We’re told that “there was nearly half as much of the entertaining as of the contemptible about the man” so, yes, it’s not as if all policemen are presented as paragons of virtue.  I’m just struck by how G— has done his job so thoroughly — microscopes, knowledge of packing out hollows in furniture, etc — when the police were so dim previously.  My gut feeling is that it’s a ruse to make Dupin all the more brilliant, as to (mercifully) save the time of him doing all that searching; we’d have another 40 pages of this, otherwise…

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in all three Dupin stories we actually never see Dupin solving the crime. With ‘Marie Rogêt’ and the fact that that is a story recounting a real-life crime that was never solved, that’s perhaps not all that surprising. But in both ‘Rue Morgue’ and this one, we are only told what happened in retrospect. ‘Morgue’ has the sailor recount all the grisly events in the murders, and in this story Dupin just suddenly produces the letter and then tells the narrator how he managed to get hold of it. To be fair, we do get to see some of Dupin’s detective work in ‘Rue Morgue’ when he and the narrator search the crime scene.

I’m not suggesting that Poe was especially bothered about continuity, but it’s interesting to me that Dupin applies the same armchair detection to this problem as he did in ‘Marie Rogêt’.  He listens to what G— has to say, trusts that what he says he’s done has been done well (there’s that confidence in the police again), and deduces the only remaining solution: the letter has been camouflaged and so must be hidden in plain sight.  I’d like to see him actually investigating a crime scene — I still remember Watson’s comments about seeing Holmes in action in ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ (1892):

Men who had only known the quiet thinker and logician of Baker Street would have failed to recognise him. His face flushed and darkened. His brows were drawn into two hard black lines, while his eyes shone out from beneath them with a steely glitter. His face was bent downward, his shoulders bowed, his lips compressed, and the veins stood out like whipcord in his long, sinewy neck. His nostrils seemed to dilate with a purely animal lust for the chase, and his mind was so absolutely concentrated upon the matter before him that a question or remark fell unheeded upon his ears, or, at the most, only provoked a quick, impatient snarl in reply.

Dupin can be such an unknowable prig at times, it would have been nice to see him investigate and cogitate more.

How about that epigraph, incidentally?  “Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio” translates as “Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cunning” — though Poe misattributes it to Seneca instead of Petrarch — and given how much cunning and convoluted criminal schemes would become a part of detective fiction, I’m interested in what (if anything) you make of it here…

I haven’t given it all that much thought, but it occurs to me that it could apply to prefect G— as well as the minister D—. G— is definitely not wise, but exercises some cunning in his duties.

It seems a little misapplied to me, since there’s nothing especially cunning beyond the means of disguising the letter to hide it, and such an inventive problem is precisely the sort of thing we know Dupin likes (from ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’) — and I presume he’s the “wisdom” in that quote.  It just seems odd that the entire purpose of your genius amateur detective, his raison d’etre, seems to be to take on the cunning mind of a brilliant criminal…so what’s “hateful” about having an appropriate challenge equal to one’s abilities?

I don’t really know either. Sometimes authors’ choice of epigraphs and mottoes quite baffle me, to be honest. In this instance, it just seems to me that D— and Dupin are water and oil, and Poe tries to shoehorn in a simile that doesn’t quite work.

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As you know, I’ve been reading some essays and criticism on Poe and his contributions to the mystery genre, and in one of those writings I saw that there’s been some speculation that the villain of the piece here is supposed to be Dupin’s brother. What do you say to this theory? I read it this time with this hypothesis scrambling around in the back of my head, but can’t say that it felt all that convincing.

I see nothing in the text to support that, no; I have a feeling it’s just someone getting carried away with the villain’s surname also beginning with D.  I wondered if it was an allusion to someone in ministerial office at the time, but since I’m not au fait with my mid-19th century political scandals I’ll have to cede to someone else’s greater knowledge there…

I think it was based not only on the alliterative names but also because the twins Atreus and Thyestes are referenced at the very end.

Oh, yeah, I forgot about that — this is what happens when authors start putting in fancy foreign quotes to prove how smart they are, I just check out.  Would he be able to fool his brother with a story about weak eyes, though?  We’re not told the pretext on which he calls and talks to D—, so it could be the old “I’m selling an encyclopedia” ruse or it could be “Beloved best friend, it’s been too long!”.  My guess is the “twins” thing is a reference to the two of them being opposite sides of a coin, or something like that, but this is a complete guess.  I’m unaware of anything that would provide any further detail, and we know how Holmes felt about theorising without data…

Yes, I quite agree with you that the whole scene where Dupin and D— meet is hard to reconcile with this theory. But the myth of Atreus and Thyestes seems rather apt as a simile…

This time upon reading it, I half had it in my head that the thief was Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin, possibly just because the similarity of the surnames — and their relative positions on opposite sides of the law — seemed apposite.  It amused me to imagine that Lupin might actually have a moral imperative for committing the crime, and that Dupin, by finding the letter, is actually responsible for freeing someone reprehensible from the clutches of another who sought to do something about them.  There are probably all manner of instances in the text which would refute this, but it amused me for a few idle moments.

Am I the only one who thinks that Dupin’s plan for recovering the letter shouldn’t have been able to work? I mean, he has someone set off a musket in the street, and D— (who must be well aware of Dupin’s acumen, old antagonists that they are) rushes off to the window to look at the commotion, giving Dupin the opportunity to pinch the letter and even leave a substitute behind? It all seems a bit too easy, wouldn’t you agree? I mean, D— is supposed to be this wildly clever fellow. Would he allow Dupin to be unsupervised even for just a minute?

This is in part why I highlight that we’re not entirely sure of the relationship these two have, if any.  Had Dupin called under the guise of a short-sighted encyclopaedia salesman — and were he as adept at disguise as possible, or even simply unknown to D— in person (he may well have forgotten about Dupin since doing him “an evil turn” in Vienna) — then there’s possibly no reason why it shouldn’t work.  D— might have been expecting a full-frontal assault from the over-eager police, and may have though Dupin the distraction, or since it’s been so long since the letter was stolen (G— has been searching the rooms for something like three weeks when he first calls on Dupin, and it’s then a month later that he comes back) maybe D— has relaxed a little, since it’s inevitable that someone must have been invited into his abode in those seven weeks.

Point taken. For all his verbosity elsewhere, Poe could’ve added a paragraph more here to really explain the situation better. Though, I guess he didn’t really think that part important — the main thing is the hiding place and how Dupin reasoned out where it was.

I know it’s a little frustrating not to have this laid out clearly, but if the alternative is 26 pages of Dupin explaining how he knew he could call unrecognised then, well, I’m all for a lack of clarity!  It does rather put one in mind of Holmes’ (equally baffling) failure with “The Woman”, though, and part of me wonders now if ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891) is more of a direct reference to this story than I’d previously imagined…

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We’ve already mentioned that this is by far Poe’s most focussed mystery story — though, as you also said, it’s not entirely without longueurs — but would you say that this story in itself is all that influential? I think that most of the new stuff came with the other two Dupin stories (and with a couple of the stories that we’ve yet to discuss), and this one is simply the distilment of everything Poe had learned from his previous attempts, creating what is a wholly recognisable mystery story.

I feel that the influence of this one is certainly easier to track than the previous two we’ve discussed.  The idea of hiding in plain sight crops up so many times throughout mystery and detective fiction, and each time it feels like little more than a riff on this tale, since if you add too much to it you’re detracting from the essential simplicity of the trick.  

The locked room of ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ was iterated and improved beyond measure over the following century, and the notion of armchair detection was picked up and handled so much better by a raft of authors — Baroness Orczy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jacques Futrelle, etc. In that regard those are perhaps more influential, but mainly because of what they started.  The results are so different from the origin that it becomes difficult to truly compare them. 

The essential simplicity of ‘The Purloined Letter’ is both its genius and its downfall: the influence it wields as an idea can be adapted to the way a clue, suitably disguised, is waved under the reader’s nose when they’re looking for an entirely different type of declaration, but used simply as a “Yeah, but did you look everywhere?” trick it’s too basic to really satisfy any more.  It’s been done well — there’s an Arthur Porges story which uses it smartly — and it’s been done poorly — it crops up 130 years later in The French Connection (1971) — but most of the time it falls flat.  So, even more than the other Dupins, I’d day this one has a mixed heritage.

You make a good case here. I think that because this story is so much more self-assured in its handling of a mystery plot (and because I don’t think Poe truly succeeded with his main obfuscation), I just managed to overlook the main trick of the solution and its importance to future authors.  Good call!

First time for everything… 😛

Now you raise it, though, I do wonder how much the characterising of D— as “an unprincipled man of genius” is responsible for the likes of Father Brown’s nemesis Flambeau (whom Chesterton was not content to merely destroy, as Poe is here, and instead set about converting) and, to a lesser extent, James Moriarty (since he only really appears for the first time in ‘The Final Problem’ (1893) but achieves further significance afterwards) and Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  Does each genius detective have this reoccurring thorn in their side because Poe planted the seeds of if here?  Again, we don’t really know the nature of their earlier encounters, but is that another influence that could be traced back here?

Hmm… I don’t know. I think the concept of the archenemy was already well established before ‘The Purloined Letter’. I mean, the Bible has it with David and Goliath (if we allow ourselves to look away from the whole God/Satan thing), and if you want something a bit more recent though still preceding Poe, then there’s always M’lady in The Three Musketeers (1844).

In fact, I think it might to some extent be just the opposite — the archenemy doesn’t really lend itself well to a long run of stories about the same detective. Because if the detective has an archenemy and doesn’t manage to catch him, well, his work isn’t all that great, is it? It sort of works for spy thrillers like James Bond where the agent, no matter how capable, is just a cog in a very big machinery and isn’t really able to affect the whole surrounding world. But in a detective story, set in a much narrower, more limited world, I don’t really see it working without diminishing the capabilities of the detective.

Yeah, but then most of our detectives from GAD don’t have the recussring villain: Fell, Merrivale (unless you count the House of Lords…), Wimsey, Campion, Alleyn, Poirot, Marple, Reggie Fortune, John Poole, Sheringham (unless you count himself…),Cockrill, Desmond Merrion, Mrs. Bradley…the number of detective characters with a long-running antagonist is, well, one (Father Brown), and there’s a bigger picture at play there.  You’re right; it’s about the case being solved — not just for the detective’s saving face, but also for that GAD staple of the rot being cut out and the status quo restored — and everyone getting on with their lives.  Which is what happens here, really.

So maybe it was influential, but in the opposite way to what I originally suggested, eh…? 😉

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I’m as surprised as any of you that I didn’t dislike this as much as I remember — seeing it in some context definitely helps, and Poe has learnt the lesson of not maundering on too long to no effect.  We move away from Dupin now, and Poe never returned to him…so how much influence can one man have after only two successful cases?  Fairly amazing, when you think about it…

3 thoughts on “#607: Little Fictions/Going Home – The Crime Stories of Edgar Allan Poe: ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844)

  1. Holy moly, was “The Three Musketeers” really just written one year before this story? Man, I thought it was several decades older. 🙂

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  2. I can somewhat confirm that “leave the item in plain view” can work. I was playing a game with some kids and “hid” an item they needed in plain sight, and it was the last one they found. It was just a drawing that was on the wall with some other paper, and again, little kids, but still. I haven’t read this story so I don’t know how Poe justifies it, but I can see it working.

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