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The Purloined Letter

Critique • Text

The Gift first editionThe Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1845
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First book publication
December 1844 in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1845

Literature form

Crime, mystery, intrigue

Writing language

Author's country
United States

Approx. 5,500 words

Introducing the armchair detective

If "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is called the first detective story, then "The Purloined Letter" is the third or fourth, depending on which Edgar Allan Poe's stories of ratiocination, as he called them, you count.

It's the second sequel featuring Poe's French sleuth C. Auguste Dupin, after "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt." ("The Gold Bug", written around the same time may also be considered a mystery, but it does not involve Dupin.)

It may be the best and most tightly written story of the three, so much so that Arthur Conan Doyle uses much of the plot and style for one of his most famous Sherlock Holmes stories, "A Scandal in Bohemia".

As with its predecessors, "The Purloined Letter" shows Poe trying something a little diffferently with each story. In this case, an element of intrigue is added, as Dupin's help is enlisted to recover a stolen document that could prove embarrassing for the government.

Here we have the early development of the classic armchair mystery, in which we see our hero mainly listen and think—and later reveal all to the astonished narrator—though Dupin does indulge in one influential bit of undercover sleuthing that climaxes the tale.

"The Purloined Letter" is told less ponderously than the other two stories, despite Dupin (Poe really) going on a bit ponderously about poetry and mathematics, and the characters, established now, lock horns more entertainingly.

It's a story most like the mysteries produced by crime writers to come—the most accessible, and my favourite, of the three Dupin tales by Poe.

It's also a favourite of various French postmodernist philosophers who for some reason have selected this story to argued extensively over its structure, symbols and signifiers in terms that most of us mere readers are unable to follow.

Unlike the first Dupin tale, this one—about a third the length—has not been adapted for feature movies, though it has been interpreted for various television episodes over the years.

— Eric


Critique • Text