One of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous “tales of ratiocination” whose emphasis on deductive reasoning became the basis for the modern detective story, The Purloined Letter features Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, the archetype of the modern fictional detective who always outwits the less imaginative police. Dupin is also the model for Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous fictional detective.
The story, told by an unnamed first-person narrator, opens in Paris in the autumn. He and his friend Dupin are enjoying a quiet evening together in Dupin’s library, smoking their pipes; the narrator has been musing over the earlier mysteries of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and of that of Marie Roget when Monsieur G——, the Parisian police prefect, bursts into the room. He is desperate to recover a stolen letter that the thief, a minister in the French government, will doubtless use to besmirch the honor of an unnamed woman of French royalty. Dupin tells the prefect that he may be stumped by the very simplicity of the mystery. The rest of the story focuses on the deductive means by which Dupin discovers and retrieves the letter and thereby exemplifies Poe’s belief that the story must avoid diffusion and illuminate a “single effect” for the reader.
Juxtaposed with the competent but unimaginative prefect, the superiority of Dupin and his narrator friend in terms of both class and intellect may seem snobbish to contemporary readers, yet this theme continued in much 20th- and 21st-century detective short fiction. The private investigator is nearly always at odds with—and more successful as a crime solver— than the paid officials. Despite the best efforts of the police, they are no match for Dupin, who discovers the simplicity of the letter’s hiding place, steals it, and sells it to the overjoyed prefect.
The neatly satisfactory ending with Dupin’s intellectual victory has been called into question, however, particularly when we notice the emphasis with which the prefect reiterates to Dupin the escalating amount of the reward for retrieval of the letter. Poe evokes an ambiguously complex portrayal of Dupin, who in his victory reveals questionable ethical standards in his means of retrieval and his demand for the 50,000 francs before he hands over the letter to the prefect. Indeed, he seems another version of the prefect or, even more probably of the thief himself, whom he credits with a similar intelligence and a similar gift for both poetry and mathematical reasoning. Dupin’s creator, of course, demonstrates the same talents. The critic and scholar Eugene Current-García suggests that, by employing the doppleganger motif, Poe perhaps implicitly symbolizes the “ineluctable duplicity of the human mind” (72).
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