"The Purloined Letter”
by Edgar Allan Poe
I was probably about ten when I first read Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. I know a collected volume was my companion on the train trip to visit my desperately-ill grandmother that year. And like many things we read as children, I found them very different upon re-reading.
It was embarrassing, for instance, to realize the fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin, the hero of Poe’s “stories of ratiocination” would have considered me only of average intellect. (Hey -- I was just a kid!)
I was so average at the age of ten, in fact, as to be overwhelmed by Dupin’s brilliant reasoning that the almost equally-brilliant, sinister Minister D-- had hidden the letter in question in plain sight.
Even if you also think you know the story, it rewards another reading. Minister D-- steals an incriminating letter to an “exalted personage” -- apparently the queen -- under her own eyes, to use as blackmail. But the queen dares not confront D-- because, well, her husband also walk in, and the letter definitely isn’t from him.
And despite the inevitability that D-- keeps the letter near him, the secret police have not been able to find it. So the bumbling police prefect tells his friend Dupin, describing in detail the efforts of his force to recover the letter without letting D-- know they’re trying to recover it. A quandary Dupin solves by reasoning and a couple of casual visits to D--,
a close but not dear, acquaintance.
Although Merriam-Webster lists the first use of the word “detective” in 1732, it was not used in the sense of the detective fiction genre when Poe wrote the first of his Dupin stories in 1841. Instead, he preferred the term “ratiocination,” meaning simply, “close reasoning.”
However, despite the occasional use of the reasoning process by other nineteenth century writers such as Wilkie Collins, the genre of “detective fiction” languished until Arthur Conan Doyle revived it with his first Sherlock Holmes story about a detective as unofficial as Dupin in 1887’s A Study in Scarlet.
A comparison of the similarities between the Dupin and Holmes stories needs more space than this post allows. Holmes himself appeared sufficiently aware of the similarities to denigrate Dupin as “a very inferior fellow.”
(A view Holmes’ creator Conan Doyle begs to differ with, describing Poe as “to my mind, the supreme original short story writer of all time,” in his literary memoir, Through the Magic Door.)
All of which leaves me with quandaries such as, if the police turned over every page of
every book in Minister D--’s library, why didn’t they also turn over the pages of his letters, including the one hanging, in Dupin’s description, “from a trumpery filigree card-rack of paste-board” ?
Or why did D-- have a letter similar to the exalted personage’s in his pocket when he visited her? And who exactly is the exalted personage meant to be? (I’m voting for Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine -- although definitely not queen of France at the time of Poe’s writing.) And how on earth, while Dupin and the prefect sat in the darkened library of the opening scene, did the prefect find enough light to read a detailed description of the letter?
The story is readily available on the internet, if you want to try your own intellect at solutions.
(Next Friday: When you know dozens of ways to kill people, do you ever think of doing it in real life? To someone you dislike? Agatha Christie apparently did, to the woman who tried to prevent her marriage to Max Mallowan, in Murder in Mesopotamia.)