“The Stolen Letter” was originally published as “The Fourth Poor Traveller” in The Seven Poor Travellers, the extra Christmas number of Charles Dickens’s Household Words (December 1854). At this time, Wilkie Collins was a protégé of Dickens. The story was subsequently reprinted in After Dark (1856) as “The Lawyer’s Story of a Stolen Letter.”
While sitting for his portrait, an attorney, Mr. Boxsious, recounts the time he helped out his young friend, Mr. Frank Galtiffe. In his story, Frank, the son of a rich country squire, falls in love with his younger sister’s governess and is intent on marrying her. This alliance, however, does not meet the approval of his father, who takes it upon himself to send the governess, Miss Smith, away with first-rate references and a generous monetary compensation. Mr. Frank is not one to give up so easily; he follows the governess and threatens to take his own life if he is prevented from marrying his beloved. The old squire finally concedes to the engagement when he finds out that the poor young governess’s deceased father had come from a “good” family and had served in the army before becoming a wine merchant.
Preparations are made for the wedding day, including an announcement in the county paper that highlights the superior pedigree of the governess’s father, though omitting the part about his subsequent career path. In the meantime, however, Mr. Frank receives a disturbing note. The sender claims to have a letter in his possession that implicates the governess’s father in an attempted forgery. This letter, he threatens, will be turned over to the local newspaper unless he receives payment of £500.
The lawyer comes to Mr. Frank’s aid and offers to retrieve the letter from the blackmailer. If he succeeds, Mr. Frank will pay the lawyer the £500; if he does not obtain the incriminating document, his professional services are free. With the aid of two servants, the lawyer executes an elaborate search-and-surveillance plan to gain access to the blackmailer’s rooms and steal back the letter. Using the only clue he has at hand, a puzzling numerical inscription, Boxsious demonstrates his remarkable powers of deduction in recovering the original letter. At first he meticulously searches, “on the usual plan,” every possible inch of the room: designs on the wallpaper, the placement and construction of the furniture, the window counterpane, even the fringes on the bed, all to no avail. Then he chastises himself for almost overlooking the obvious, the place where he was standing—the carpet. By applying the numerical inscription “5 alone” and “4 across” to the pattern in the carpet, he discovers the hiding place of the original letter. Ultimately, he turns the tables on the blackmailer—“a nice irritating little plan”—by replacing the letter from beneath the carpet with a piece of paper on which he has inscribed, “change for a five hundred pound note.” The marriage of Mr. Frank to the governess can thus take place without the threat of scandal, while the duped blackmailer quietly slips out of town, presumably never to be seen or heard from again.
Though clearly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” (1845), “A Stolen Letter” is an early example of Collins’s numerous and varied contributions to the genre of detection fiction. While the detective work of “A Stolen Letter” is performed expertly by a respectable and professional male, the lawyer Mr. Boxious, in much of Collins’s subsequent fiction (his short stories and his novels) acts of ratiocination are performed by a motley (and often transgressive) cast of amateur detectives, who in various ways outwit their social and intellectual superiors in the course of their investigations. The stolen letter, of course, serves as a motif that runs throughout Collins’s fiction as well: the buried writing or “dead secret” that will not remain hidden.
Collins, Wilkie. Complete Short Fiction. London: Constable. 1998.