The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allen Poe

This is one of Poe’s better-known short stories, “The Purloined Letter”:

I cannot remember now why I printed this story out (from here, and thank you) to read on my lunch break. I read a line about it in another book – Mr. Mercedes, perhaps? Heck. Sorry. Suffice it to say, a Poe recommendation is always worthwhile.

Now I will try to answer the question: What makes Poe so great?

His tales rely not on the solutions offered to the problems presented – which, while no pushovers, are not the mindbending puzzles of the century. Rather, his characters are so very clever, come around to things in such intellectual twists and turns that we are dazzled; and perhaps the best bits are the dialogue. I love his flair!

“That is another of your odd notions,” said the Prefect, who had a fashion of calling every thing “odd” that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of “oddities.”

When the story opens, our narrator has stopped in to smoke a pipe with a friend, when the Parisian Prefect (of police) drops by to ask for help with a case. He is stumped, and wants to pick the clearly superior brains, in particular of the narrator’s host, Dupin, who we have met before (see the Murders in the Rue Morgue). A lady has lost a letter that will get her in great trouble if her husband finds out about it; and she knows exactly who took it, because he took it from under her very eyes – and those of her husband, which is why she couldn’t cry out about it. She has engaged the Prefect to recover this document, which has become an object of blackmail. He has had his men very very thoroughly search the dwelling and person of the thief, repeatedly and using microscopes, needles, and probes. The letter is clearly not in the home; clearly not on the man; and yet he clearly would keep it near to hand to help in blackmailing the lady. What a puzzler!

Dupin sends him on his way, but he returns some time later, having given up; the considerable reward he’s been promised will clearly have to go unclaimed. It is an unsolvable mystery. This is when Dupin speaks up: for a portion of that reward, he will happily hand over the letter. The Prefect pays; the letter is produced from a drawer in Dupin’s desk. The Prefect goes away again, mystified but triumphant. And our narrator asks for the explanation, which of course is… I won’t spoil, but simplicity is always the answer.

This entire story is set in Dupin’s “little back library.” The action is all removed, told in narrative; if this were a play, it would be done with the single setting, that darkened book room filled with pipe smoke, and two or three men talking. That in itself is kind of an attractive feature to me. Poe’s mysteries are cerebral; it’s all in the dialogue and the internal machinations. The likes of Hercule Poirot or Claire DeWitt, those detectives who solve mysteries by thinking, clearly owe a debt to Poe. In fact, Poe’s detective stories are credited with (at least in part) birthing the genre; but some modern-day versions follow him more closely than others.

The plot is lovely because it offers room for plenty of debate, being intellectual in nature. It is clever. But my favorite part is definitely the dialogue and the intricacies of the very clever players.

Poe’s cleverness is on display as well; I had to look up several terms & lines.

First, pardon my ignorance, but I had to look up what was meant by “the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum” – what the heck is that?? It’s a pipe, of course. The Sherlock Holmes type, one assumes.

Others:

Procrustean bed: “an arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is forced.”

recherche: “unusual and not understood by most people.”

And then the French! I copied out “Il y a parier que toute idee publique, toute convention recue, est une sottise, car elle a convenu au plus grand nombre” and Google Translate gave me the (very rough) “there a bet that any public idea, any agreement received is nonsense, because it agreed to the largest number.” Okay, I think I can follow that: what the masses easily buy is not necessarily the best solution, hm? But then in closing:

Un dessein si funeste, S’il n’est digne d’Atree, est digne de Thyeste.

Again, my rough Google translation gives me “if a fatal design is worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes.” I am totally charmed by anybody who invokes the Greek myths to close a mystery story. Although I could take a pass on the reference coming to me in French.


Rating: 9 ravens, how about.

Next up, I would like to read Shirley Jackson’s The Summer People, inspired by (what else?) my recent read of Shirley. Short stories referenced in novels, moving forward.

7 Responses

  1. I believe Holmes did, at least at times, smoke a meerschaum, but I could be wrong.

    I need to go back and reread this. I go back to Holmes a lot (I write mysteries, and my detective very deliberately models herself on the classic detectives — one of her first lines of dialogue is “the game’s afoot!”), but Poe is obviously seminal as well. (I’ve recently been enjoying some of Doyle’s non-Holmes writing, by the way — I hadn’t realized how funny he could be, a side which doesn’t come out much in the mysteries.)

  2. why doesn’t WordPress have a simple tag for “love this!”

    ??

  3. Thank you for the compliment, then, Anthony! šŸ™‚

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