For Mysteries & More!

The Purloined Letter

With an Introduction by Matthew Pearl

With an Introduction by Matthew Pearl

“He had called to consult us, or rather to ask the opinion of my friend, about some official business which had occasioned a great deal of trouble.”

The shortest of the Dupin tales, The Purloined Letter is perhaps the most ingenious.

The Prefect of the Parisian police pays a visit to Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin about a delicate matter.  An incriminating letter has been brazenly stolen by an important Minister.  “His lynx eye immediately perceives the paper, recognises the handwriting of the address, observes the confusion of the personage addressed, and fathoms her secret.”  The Minister D. steals the letter substituting one of his own, but his theft is observed.  The lady cannot stop the Minister because of “the other exalted personage from whom especially it was her wish to conceal” the letter is also present.

The police, of course, have delicately undertaken measures to search the apartments of the Minister to retrieve the letter.  They searched every corner, every niche, every square inch for the hidden letter.  They even waylaid the minister twice, “as if by footpads,” but despite every measure, they failed to discover the purloined letter.

Yet the letter must be easily accessible.  “The present peculiar conditions of affairs at court, and especially of those intrigues in which D. is known to be involved, would render the instant availability of the document.”

So the Prefect appeals to Dupin, who suggests the police re-search the premises.

A month later, the Prefect returns utterly defeated.  Dupin verifies the amount of the reward for the letter’s recovery and then announces, “You may as well fill me up a check for the amount mentioned.  When you have signed it, I will hand you the letter.”

Dupin then recounts how he found the purloined document.  In the intervening month since the Prefect first visit, Dupin himself twice visited the Minister.  First to discover the letter, then to retrieve it and replace it with a facsimile.

We learn that though he is happy to take the reward money, Dupin had a personal reason for thwarting Minister D.  “At Vienna once, he did me an evil turn.”  So Dupin leaves a message in the facsimilie letter he left behind in place of the genuine article.  “Un dessein si funeste, S’il n’est digne d’Atrée, est digne de Thyeste.”

These French words are roughly translated “a fatal design, if not worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes.”  The last line of the story states these words come from Crébillon’s Atrée.  French poet and tragedian Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (1674 – 1762) wrote Atrée et Thyeste, a tragedy in five acts, in 1707.

Briefly, in Greek Mythology, twin brothers Atreus and Thyestes fought over the throne of Mycenae.  Atreus was clever, but Thyestes was considered more so.  Though Atreus held the throne, Thyestes brought about his death and was in turn deposed by Atreus’ sons.  The battle between brothers began the series of tragedies that plagued the House of Atreus and Mycenae until Orestes, Atreus’ grandson, sought redemption.

The line Dupin leaves for Minister D. is suggestive that the two are “brothers” in intellect, but rivals akin to Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty.

“The brilliance of this piece is Poe’s calling attention to man’s inclination to overlook the obvious.”  (Waugh, p. 14)  Subsequently this has become a trope in mystery stories from Sherlock Holmes onward.  It’s not always used, but it’s a clever means to hide or reveal a clue.

In fact, the influence of Poe’s Dupin is clearly evident in Sherlock Holmes’s first appearance.  In the second chapter of A Study in Scarlet, Dr. Watson tells Holmes, “You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin.  I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.”

Holmes references Dupin’s “trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark.”  This recalls the scene in The Murders in the Rue Morgue when Dupin explains how he knew the thoughts of is companion, the narrator.  It’s also ironic that Holmes disparages this “trick” when he himself performs a similar task when, upon first meeting Watson, he quips, “You have been to Afghanistan, I perceive.”

Truly which is the greater feat?  Deducing where a person has been from physical clues or knowing the discourse of a person’s thoughts from abstract ones?

In a relatively short period of time, from roughly 1827 to 1849, Poe wrote numerous stories and poems, spanning the horror, adventure, and science fiction genres.  He’s credited with creating the detective genre, but it would be left to others to refine it.

Hillary Waugh critiques Poe’s Dupin Tales in his Guide to Mysteries and Mystery Writing, “In each of Poe’s three Dupin stories, on-site reporting is virtually nonexistent.  Poe’s technique is to reveal almost nothing as the story progresses, then tell all at the end.”  (Waugh, p. 14)

Waugh also cites the stories, “The Gold Bug” and “Thou Art the Man”, which also fall into the detective story genre.  The first deals with ciphers and codes while the second involves the clever planting of an easily overlooked clue.

It is a shame there are only three Dupin tales.  Though they may be imperfect, these stories laid the foundation and many of the conventions of the mystery genre to follow.  One wonders what Poe might have achieved had he not died so mysteriously in 1849 at only 40 years of age.  All of his stories (and poems) have and continue to influence countless writers and readers.

Share your thoughts of Poe and his stories.


A note on the text:  This review is based on the 2006 Modern Library Paperback Edition of The Murders in the Rue Morgue: the Dupin Tales, edited an with an introduction by Matthew Pearl, author of The Poe Shadow.  A note in the book explains that “multiple versions of each of the Dupin tales appeared during Poe’s lifetime.”  This edition uses the revised versions as they were included in the 1845 Wiley & Putnam collection and incorporates additional changes that appear in the “Lorimer copy” of the text.

Author Hillary Waugh, quoted above, devoted a whole chapter to Poe and the creation of the detective story in his book, Hillary Waugh’s Guide to Mysteries & Mystery Writing.  For more about this guidebook, see my review here.

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