“The Purloined Letter” — Mystery Solved

For 150 years, Edgar Allan Poe has successfully hidden a villain in plain sight. We all know C. Auguste Dupin, but after a closer look at "The Purloined Letter," we don't know him as well as we thought.

Today, January 19th, is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. To celebrate his would-be 210th name day, we’re taking a look back at “The Purloined Letter,” C. Auguste Dupin, and the villain who’s been right in front of our eyes this whole time. It’s what he would have wanted.

You don’t hear too many people using the word purloined. If not for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” it would long since have disappeared from the lexicon. But it’s a fun word to throw around: “someone has purloined my lunch.” Or “Alice purloined Jill’s keys.” Suddenly a mundane phrase becomes très chouette!

Most readers have heard of “The Purloined Letter” but may not be familiar with the story. It is one of Poe’s mysteries that has remained unsolved until now. Set in Paris in the mid-18th Century, private detective C. Auguste Dupin sits smoking a pipe in his dark little pièce and relives with the narrator their glory days of having solved “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” A knock at the door reveals the head of the Paris police, the prefect, who tells Dupin that he has a simple but odd case.

Before the prefect can explain, Dupin annoyingly and at length suggests that perhaps the mystery is too simple, too plain, too self-evident. At last, he lets the prefect explain that a document of “some importance” has been purloined from the royal boudoir. The thief is known. He is Minister D, an important government official, who has “for some months past” wielded the power this letter gives him, for “political purposes, to a very dangerous extent.” The Queen, whose letter it is, fears for the stability of the realm. It is his failure to retrieve the letter that brings the prefect to Dupin’s door. Explaining that he remains stumped after three months of searching, the prefect asks for Dupin’s advice, and he unhelpfully, tells the prefect that the police should search again.

A month later the prefect returns with no letter. He offers a reward of 50,000 francs to the finder of the lost letter. Dupin says, “you may as well fill me up a check for the amount mentioned. When you have signed it, I will hand you the letter.” Wait a minute. What happened? There does not appear to have been a mystery. Dupin finds the letter in “plain sight” and case closed.

Until now.

Dupin has been lionized by a multitude of critics. Princess Marie Bonaparte (yes, a real princess) in the early 20th Century claimed that Dupin was the “infallible ratiocinator.” Other critics later in the century claimed that Dupin imposed upon the world a sense of order: and “a talent for analysis.” That he had a high morality and brought normality to chaos.

See More: Revisiting the Edgar Awards

Many readers share the narrator’s and critics’ admiration for Dupin, but amid all the deep and earnest analysis of the tale, it has not been lost on numerous critics that Dupin is a humbug. Minister D recognizes Dupin’s writing and that is why he stole the letter. Dupin recovers the incriminating letter and profits to the tune of 50,000 francs with no one the wiser as to his duplicity. Russell Reising, a professor at the University of Toledo, suggests that C. Auguste Dupin is “one of Poe’s consummate villains” who has avoided detection for over 150 years. [1]

Dupin deduces nothing, only the simple observation, heavily tricked-out, that the letter must be in plain sight, since in any hiding place, it would be discovered. As for the theorizing which takes up so much of the tale, though most readers take Dupin’s remarks seriously, he is really trading in the identical mumbo jumbo that he denigrates in the philosophers he names in the story. Like so many of Poe’s narrators, Dupin is a fatuous, despicable, and vengeful flawed man. Sherlock Holmes is rude to people of ordinary intellect because he is caught up in solving a problem; for Dupin sneering is a pastime. His treachery goes even deeper, however, for as Reising has recently revealed, it is Dupin himself who is the queen’s clandestine lover. [2] This we can infer from his remarks to the narrator that Minister D “is well acquainted with my MS,” and Dupin does not sign the letter he leaves for D after taking back the queen’s billet-doux. He knew that D would recognize it as his. Dupin is thus shown to be a liar, extortionist, and all around humbug.

Like the murderers in “The Black Cat,” “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” Dupin is a villain who has passed for an honorable man for a very long time. The hints are there in the stories, and Poe himself left another clue about Dupin in an 1846 letter to a friend: “These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious—but people think them more ingenious than they are—on account of their method and air of method.” Mystery Solved.

Happy birthday to the master of mystery: Edgar Allan Poe


[1] This argument is detailed in “Who Wrote the Purloined Letter?” by Russel Reising in Poe Studies, volume 50, 2017 pp. 107-24.

[2] Ibid. p. 111

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