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Poe, Edgar Allen. "The Purloined Letter".


Motto: "Nothing is more odious to wisdom than too much acumen." Seneca

The first person narrator enjoys an autumn evening in Paris in the company of his friend C. Auguste Duphin. They sit in Duphin's library, smoke, and muse. The Prefect of the Parisian police, Monsieur G., comes to ask for help with a case. It is a case of a purloined letter which was stolen from a "certain personage", a lady. The robber is Minister D. He got hold of the letter by a trick: in the presence of a third person he put his own letter next to the one concerned and after some conversation he pretended not to notice that he took away the letter which was not his own. In the presence of the other person the lady could not prevent him from doing it, though she noticed the theft.

The robber enjoys the power which he can execute upon the lady. Were the contents of the letter made public, the lady would get in troubles. She offered an enormous amount of money to the Prefect under the condition that he solves the case and finds the letter. The Prefect is desperate, yet he does not lose confidence in his abilities. He thinks his reasoning qualities are highly superior to those of the Minister, who is also well known as a poet. The Prefect considers poets half-fools.

The narrator asks the Prefect for details concerning his investigation of the case. The Prefect describes in great detail how Minister's lodgings were searched. In the almost grotesque description the Prefect mentions dividing the premises into sectors so that none would be missed, using the best modern technology, and searching virtually everywhere: taking furniture into pieces, examining floors under rugs, etc. Also the garden and adjoining houses were searched. Nothing was found. The Prefect concludes that the letter is not on the premises. In his narrative, the Prefect's most frequent word is "odd" which he applies to anything going out of the scope of his reasoning.

Some time passes and the Prefect reappears in Duphin's house. He is the most desperate man the narrator ever saw. The letter was not found yet. Duphin behaves as if he knew more than the other two men. The Prefect exclaims that he would give fifty thousand francs for the letter. Duphin asks him for his check and when he gets it, he overhands the letter to the Prefect. The astonished Prefect leaves the house, unable to utter a word.

Duphin explains how he got the letter. He develops an elaborate theory concerning the reasoning of the mass, the folly of conventions, and the uselessness of mathematics which does not allow any exceptions. It is necessary to think as the robber thinks, but not as the majority of robbers, rather as the robber concerned. The Prefect's method was perfect, only it relied on mechanical application of some theory which applies on the mass, but not on this particular case. The Minister is not only a poet, he is also a mathematician. He is able to guess the thoughts of the Prefect, but not by any supernatural faculty, rather by simply feeling as the Prefect does.

Duphin does the same. He concludes that to conceal the letter, the Minister will not conceal it. He pays him a random visit and finds the letter placed in a card-rack hang on the wall. The letter was presented with a different seal and was redirected, but it was the one concerned. It made an impression of a worthless piece of paper, but anyone coming to the room was sure to see it. Duphin writes a copy of the letter and on revisiting the Minister, he hires a man to make fuss in the street so as to tempt the Minister to the window, and exchanges the letters. Knowing that the Minister is well acquainted with his manuscript, Duphin leaves him a message: "So dark a design that, if it is not worthy of Atreus, it is worthy of Thyestes." (Note: Atreus slew Thyestes's three sons and served him their flesh because Thyestes seduced his wife and plotted his death.)


- a detective story of rational analysis

- probably one of the first detective stories ever written

- concerned with the art of reasoning, refuses purely mechanical reasoning

- suggests that art may be superior to exact science

- uses three different narrators and points of view

- the action is not shown, but narrated


  • Author

    Poe, Edgar Allen. (1809 - 1849).
  • Full Title

    "The Purloined Letter".
  • First Published

  • Form

    Short story.

Works Cited

Poe, Edgar Allen. "The Purloined Letter". (1845). In: The Chief American Prose Writers: Selected Prose. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916.


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