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The Purloined Letter

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"The Purloined Letter" is one of Edgar Allan Poe's detective stories. It is the third of the three stories featuring the detective Auguste Dupin; these stories are considered to be important early forefunners of the modern detective story. It first appeared in The Gift for 1845 (1844) and was soon reprinted in numerous journals and newspapers.

Synopsis

An unnamed narrator is meeting with the famous Parisian amateur detective Auguste Dupin, and discussing some of his most celebrated cases, when they are joined by the Prefect of the Police, a man known only as G-. The Prefect has a case he would like to discuss with M. Dupin.

A letter, the contents of which - if revealed - would be highly compromising, has been stolen from the private sitting room of the Queen. The culprit is the unscrupulous Minister D-. He was in the Queen’s room, saw the letter, and switched it for a letter of no importance. He has been arrogantly blackmailing the Queen for several months over its return.

The Prefect makes two deductions with which Dupin does not disagree:

1. The contents of the letter have not been revealed, as this would have lead to certain circumstances that have not arisen. Therefore Minister D- still has the letter in his possession.
2. The ability to produce the letter at a moment’s notice is almost as important as possession of the letter itself. Therefore he must have the letter close at hand.

The Prefect says that he and his police detectives have made a most thorough search of the Ministerial hotel where D- stays and have found nothing. They have checked behind the wallpaper and under the carpets. The Prefect explains that the letter could be rolled up very small and hidden in a chair leg. Without destroying all the furniture, his men have examined the tables and chairs with microscopes but have found no sign of interference.

Dupin asks the Prefect if he knows what he is looking for and the Prefect reads off a minute description of the letter, which Dupin memorises. The Prefect then bids them good day.

A month later, the Prefect returns, still bewildered in his search for the missing letter. He is motivated to continue his fruitless search by the promise of a large reward, recently doubled, upon the letter’s safe return. He will pay 50, 000 francs to anyone who can help him. Dupin asks him to write that check now and he will give him the letter. The Prefect is astonished but knows that Dupin is not joking. He writes the check and Dupin produces the letter. The Prefect quickly determines that it is genuine and races off to deliver it to the Queen.

Alone together again, the narrator asks Dupin how he managed to find the letter. Dupin explains how the Paris police are very competent within their limitations, but have underestimated who they are dealing with. The Prefect mistakes the Minister D- for a fool because he is a poet. For example, Dupin explains how an eight-year old boy made a small fortune from his friends at a game called “Odds and Evens”. The boy was able to determine the intelligence of his opponents and play upon that to interpret their next move.

D- knew the police detectives were highly intelligent and would have assumed that the blackmailer would have concealed the letter in an elaborate hiding place. Realising this, D- then hid the letter in plain sight, but disguised.

Dupin visits the minister at his hotel. Complaining of ‘weak eyes’ Dupin is wearing pair of green spectacles, the true purpose of which is to disguise his eyes as he searches for the letter. In a cheap card rack hanging from a dirty ribbon, he sees a half-torn letter and knows he has found what he came for. Striking up a conversation with D- about a subject he knows the minister is interested in, Dupin examines the letter more closely. It does not look like the letter the Prefect described so minutely; the writing is different and it is sealed not with the ‘ducal arms of the S- family, but with D’s monogram. Dupin notices that the paper is chafed as if the stiff paper was first rolled one way and then another. Dupin concludes that D- wrote a new address on the reverse of the stolen one, re-folded it the opposite way and sealed it with his own seal.

Dupin leaves a snuff box behind as an excuse to return the next day. Striking up the same conversation they had begun the previous day, D- is startled by a gunshot in the street. While he goes to investigate, Dupin switches D-’s letter for a duplicate. The man with the gun is in Dupin’s pay.

The narrator asks Dupin why he bothered to leave a duplicate. Dupin replies that, if he did not, he probably wouldn’t have left the hotel alive! As a political supporter of the Queen, he hopes that when D- produces the unopened letter it will mean the minister’s downfall. For the letter he left contains an insulting note: “Un dessein si funeste, S'il n'est digne d'Atrée, est digne de Thyeste.” Literally translated this means “If such a sinister design isn't worthy of Atreus, it is worthy of Thyestes.” A more figurative translation would be “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” Template:Endspoiler

Discussion

The story was used by the French psychologist Jacques Lacan and the philosopher Jacques Derrida to present opposing structuralist interpretations. The two exchanged a series of letters concerning on the nature of desire.[1]

While a seemingly simple story, "The Purloined Letter" can open discussions regarding the taking of power, the position of the monarch and of women in 19th century society, the nature of deductive reasoning, and the literary convention of the Gothic double.

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