Prevailing Ingenuity in Edgar Allan Poe’s
“The Purloined Letter.”
In crafting the detective mystery, Edgar Allan Poe is the only author credited with inventing a new genre of literature. His contribution of this brand of story telling greatly influences writers to this day. “The Purloined Letter” is the final tale in the trilogy of the clever and cunning amateur detective, C. Auguste Dupin. In this story, The Prefect of the Parisian police calls upon Dupin to aid in an investigation that has baffled and frustrated the police. Dupin finds a worthy adversary in the antagonst, Minister D_. Dupin must identify with the mind of the criminal in order to retrieve a stolen letter and return it to its rightful owner. With the dynamic relationship between Dupin, Prefect G_., and Minister D_., Poe skillfully illustrates that an ingenious felon will always outwit his opponent if the opponent is incapable of identifying with the felon’s intellect.
The plot of the story is about how a clever and ingenious amateur detective solves a mystery that has baffled the police for months. The story begins with a visit from the Prefect of Police to Dupin’s apartment for advice on a matter of “extreme urgency and sensitivity.” At first, Prefect G_. is cryptic about the details of the case, but Dupin quickly retrieves more information from the officer. For all practical purposes, the initial crime has been solved and the police are aware of the identity of the perpetrator. The only remaining task is to recover the letter belonging to a “Lady of high position,” presumably a member of the royal family, and returning it to her. The theft of the letter was committed in full view of the Lady by Minister D_., but she was unable to prevent the documents removal by the Minister without bringing attention to its sensitive contents. It is feared that the letter will be used as an instrument of blackmail against the Lady.
Desperate to recover the letter, the Lady approaches the Prefect and offers him a substantial reward for its recovery and for his utmost discretion in keeping it secret. Fueled by his desire for the reward, and confident in his abilities of investigation he accepts the challenge and assures her the affair will remain secret. Months pass and although the police have searched the Minis...
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...ain, without doing so, upon G_.’s saying that he had called to consult us”(96). Dupin’s decision to forego the lighting of the lamp symbolizes his desire to keep the Prefect in the dark; Dupin was not interested in enlightening the police officer. Also present in the opening scene is the third use of symbolism. Here, the narrator and Dupin sit in silent meditation smoking their pipes, “while each, to any casual observer, might have seemed intently and exclusively occupied with the curling eddies of smoke that oppressed the atmosphere of the chamber”(96). Like the soiled letter plainly located in the Minister’s card rack, this use of symbolism suggests the existence of a smokescreen that obscures what is evident.
The failure of the police to find the purloined letter is the result of inductive, as opposed to deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning, by its nature, leads from one probability to the next, where deductive reasoning minimizes probabilities. It is Dupin’s powers of deduction and his ability to identify with the inner psyche of the criminal mind that leads to the downfall of Minister D_. , and the saving of the royal lady’s reputation.
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