Edgar Allan Poe's
"The Purloined Letter" --
The Perfectly Balanced
Detective Story

by Drew R. Thomas

In "The Purloined Letter," the third and last of his C. Auguste Dupin tales, Edgar Allan Poe found the perfect combination of what Howard Haycraft calls the "physical" and the "mental" detective story -- to produce the "balanced" tale.

This perfectly balanced tale begins with Dupin and his narrator sitting in their apartment sharing "meditation and a meerschaum" when"...our old acquaintance, Monsieur G--, the Prefect of the Parisian police," (with whom Dupin has worked on his previous cases) visits him with a predicament of his own.

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Dupin's narrator writes, "We gave him a hearty welcome; for there was nearly half as much of the entertaining as of the contemptible about the man, and we had not seen him for several years. We had been sitting in the dark, and Dupin now arose for the purpose of lighting a lamp, but sat down again, without doing so, upon G.'s saying that 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."

This Prefect presents his case to Dupin: "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 known, this beyond a doubt; he was seen to take it. It is known, also, that it still remains in his possession" (Tales of Edgar Allan Poe).

"How is this known?" asked Dupin.

"It is clearly inferred ... from the nature of the document, from the non-appearance of certain results which would at once arise from its passing out of the robber's possession -- that is to say, from his employing it as he must design in the end to employ it."

The Minister D-- [the culprit], "...has been twice waylaid, as if by footpads, and his person rigorously searched under my own inspection."

Dupin tells his narrator, "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.... The measures adopted were not only the best of their kind, but carried out to absolute perfection.... The measures, then, ... were good in their kind, and well executed; their defect lay in their being inapplicable to the case and to the man."

"The Purloined Letter" is a marvelous little tale. The manner in which Dupin solves the case, retrieves the letter, and presents it to Prefect G-- is worthy, indeed.

The Prefect tells Dupin, "I am perfectly willing to take advice, and to pay for it. I would really give fifty thousand francs to any one who would aid me in the matter."

"'In that case,' replied Dupin, opening a drawer, and producing a check-book, 'you may as well fill me up a check for the amount mentioned. When you have signed it, I will hand you the letters.'"

Dupin's narrator writes:

"I was astounded. The Prefect appeared absolutely thunder-stricken. For some minutes he remained speechless and motionless, looking incredulously at my friend with open mouth, and eyes that seemed starting from their sockets; then, apparently recovering himself in some measure, he seized a pen, and after several pauses and vacant stares, finally filled up and signed a check for fifty thousand francs, and handed it across the table to Dupin. The latter examined it carefully and deposited it in his pocket-book; then, unlocking an escritoire, took thence a letter and gave it to the Prefect. This functionary grasped it in a perfect agony of joy, opened it with a trembling hand, cast a rapid glance at its contents, and then, scrambling and struggling to the door, rushed at length unceremoniously from the room and from the house, without having uttered a syllable since Dupin had requested him to fill up the check.""

This story is worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself. Indeed, it is clear that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was influenced by Poe when he wrote A Study in Scarlet, "A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Naval Treaty," "The Priory School," and other stories. (Poe's influence upon Doyle will be discussed more specifically elsewhere on this web site.)

In "The Purloined Letter," Poe produced the concept of hiding something in plain view (which has been used since by many writers and filmmakers, e.g., "Hot Money" by John Dickson Carr.)

Finally, the perfectly balanced detective story had been written!

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Genesis: 1841 | Home

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