The Purloined Letter, a short story by Edgar Allan Poe is a tale of ratiocination, i.e., the technique involving inductive and deductive reasoning. The story forms an integral part of Poe’s trilogy of detective stories featuring C. Auguste Dupin, a fictional protagonist detective. Besides this story, the other two namely ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue‘ and ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget‘ foregrounded the popularity of detective fiction as a genre.
The word ‘purloin’ means an act of stealing or borrowing something without seeking permission.
At the outset, the title of the story insinuates concealment which intensifies the suspense and evokes the reader’s curiosity. The plot commences with a Latin phrase attributed to Seneca “Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio” meaning “Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cunning”. It would not be an overstatement to consider this as the central motivation behind Poe’s composition.
The plot is set in motion in a small room in Paris where the unnamed first-person narrator is quietly sitting with his friend C. Auguste Dupin. The anonymous raconteur is recollecting the tragedy of the Rue Morgue and the cruel murder of Marie Roget while sitting comfortably in a library located in Faubourg St. Germain. This profound meditation is interrupted with the arrival of Monsieur G——, the Prefect of the Paris police. It is evident that the Prefect is revisiting after a long time for a consultation regarding a “simple and odd” case.
The Prefect initiates his narration with a baffling affair concerning a letter, the prime possession, which has been stealthily removed from the royal apartments. The repartee between Dupin and the Prefect indicates that the mystery is quite plain and self-evident. The police are aware of the identity of the purloiner: Minister D—, a certain government official. This “affair demanding the greatest secrecy” involves a young lady who initially possessed a letter that contains sensitive information regarding a man who can be potentially disgraced if the content is revealed. The method of stealing the letter has been described as “not less ingenious than bold.” While the young lady was reading the letter for the first time, the man whom it concerned entered the apartment. To prevent any suspicion, the lady kept the letter on the table next to her. At this moment, the Minister arrived and his “lynx eye” quickly scanned the contents of the letter. The conniving Minister spontaneously perceived the significance of the letter and replaced it with his own insignificant letter which resembled the original letter of immense importance that the lady wanted to conceal. The “the robber’s knowledge of the loser’s knowledge of the robber” weakens the position of the lady upon whom the Minister D—wields great power. The power thus acquired has been exercised by the Minister to a dangerous extent. This has made the lady more determined to reclaim the letter. Out of despair and desperation, the lady has entrusted the Prefect with her secret.
Dupin’s curiosity is aroused and he inquires about any attempt to search the Minister’s residence. The Prefect denies having found any such letter during their search of the Minister’s hotel. He recounts the systematic search conducted without the Minister’s knowledge. The Prefect reiterates the warning, “beyond all things, I have been warned of the danger which would result from giving him a reason to suspect our design.” He has himself ransacked D—’s hotel multiple times. This, Monsieur G— the Prefect, did by intoxicating the servants of the Minister and purloining the key. He abandoned the search when he was fully satisfied that the letter was not on the premises. While admitting failure, he concedes that the Minister is a “more astute man” than the Prefect himself. The letter could not be found hidden on the Minister’s body when he was “twice waylaid” by the police. The Prefect mentions his willingness to search more thoroughly because the reward is extremely generous. Dupin requests for details of the search. The Prefect assures him that the police have examined every nook and corner of the premises without fail. Dupin makes a suggestion that they should search the place again.
A month has elapsed. Once more Dupin and the narrator are sitting together when the Prefect arrives. While admitting his inability to locate the letter, the Prefect informs Dupin that the reward has increased. He announces that he is willing to pay 50,000 francs to anyone who obtains the letter. Dupin asks him to draw a check for that amount. The astounded Prefect writes the check and Dupin hands over the letter to him. He rushes off to return the letter to its legitimate owner whereas Dupin enters an explanation. He admits that the Parisian police are able investigators and extremely efficient at performing their duties.
He draws an analogy with a young boy playing “even and odd.” In this guessing game, each player predicts whether the number of things (usually toys) held by another player is even or odd. If the child guesses correctly, he is given one of the toys. If wrong, he is bound to lose a toy of his own. The boy whom Dupin is alluding to is well-versed with the game because he makes his guesses on the basis of his knowledge of the opponent. When this schoolboy is caught in a trying situation, he imitates his opponent, in an attempt to understand what the opponent is thinking. This judgment enables the boy to often guess correctly. Dupin asserts that “identification of the reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent” ensured the triumph of his investigative venture. This very technique has been associated with the theorizations by Rochefoucauld, La Bougive, Machiavelli, and Campanella. Dupin further argues that the Parisian police didn’t employ this strategy and therefore they failed at obtaining the letter: the police were searching those areas where they themselves would have hidden the letter.
He maintains that the Minister was cunning enough and he didn’t hide the letter in the secret nook or cranny. Dupin also refers to the game of puzzles in which one player discovers a name on a map and challenges the other player to find the same. The amateurs tend to pick the most minutely lettered names, the hardest names to find are the ones that are quite obvious.
With the knowledge of this game in mind, Dupin narrates his visit to the Minister’s apartment. After broadly surveying the residence, his eyes caught the glimpse of a group of visiting cards hanging from the mantelpiece. There was a letter accompanying those cards. On close observation, Dupin noticed that the letter appeared to have been folded back on itself. He becomes sure that it is the stolen document. To generate an excuse for returning back to the Minister’s quarters, he deliberately left his snuffbox behind. The next morning, he revisited the residence to retrieve the letter and arranged for someone to make a commotion outside the window to create a distraction so that he could re-purloin the letter. While the Minister was engaged in investigating the cause of the noise, Dupin switched the stolen letter with a fake and recreated the Minister’s own trick. The reason for leaving the duplicate letter behind was to embarrass the Minister when he acts under the impression that he still possesses the letter. Dupin informs the reader as well as the unnamed narrator that the Minister once wronged him in Vienna and he had vowed to give a befitting response at the appropriate time. In the fake letter is inscribed a French poem that translates into English, “So baneful a scheme, if not worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes.”