Detection from A to Z…
C. Auguste Dupin is credited with being the first fictional detective and was the influence for many later ones, not least my beloved Sherlock Holmes. So it seems only fair that he make an appearance in this week’s…
The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe
This is the third and last of Poe’s Dupin stories, and also the shortest. The first, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, is a gruesome, gory mystery with possibly the silliest murderer in detective fiction. The Mystery of Marie Rogêt was Poe’s attempt to provide a solution to a true crime – the first time this had been done in the form of fiction. While I appreciated both stories for their originality and influential status, I found Dupin an annoying creation and wasn’t particularly enamoured of Poe’s writing style in these stories. So I came to the third one with reasonably low expectations, which Poe met in full.
The plot concerns a letter, stolen from an unnamed lady, probably the Queen, the contents of which, if they were made public, would be damaging to the lady’s husband, probably the King. One evening, as Dupin and the narrator are sitting in Dupin’s library, they are interrupted by the arrival of the Prefect of the Parisian Police, known only as G (which brings me to my first annoyance – if telling a fictional story, why not give the man a fictional name and have done? If the intention is to make it seem as if it’s a true story, then by telling us his title Poe has already destroyed his anonymity). G tells Dupin that it is known who stole the letter, a government Minister, known only as D (sigh). D is now using the letter to blackmail the unnamed lady (let’s call her Q). G also says it is assumed that D must have the letter close at hand, so that he can make use of it or destroy it if need be. Dupin agrees with this assumption. G then describes the meticulous searches that have been carried out of D’s property, including taking furniture apart, lifting carpets and examining every inch of the place with microscopes – all while D is away from home and remarkably leaving no traces of the search for him to find. All to no avail. He asks for Dupin’s advice, and Dupin helpfully tells him to go back and search again. (At this point, had I been G, this would have turned into a murder mystery…)
A whole month later, G is back to say that the reward for the return of the letter has been doubled and that he, G, would cheerfully give 50,000 francs to anyone who could tell him how to find the letter. At this, Dupin tells him to write a cheque, and then hands over the letter. G rushes off happily to collect the reward and Dupin settles down to tell the narrator (N?) of his brilliant deductions.
This might all sound like a spoiler, but the story is actually about how Dupin came to his conclusion as to where the letter was hidden and the bulk of the story happens after he has handed it over to G. Dupin’s basic theory is that G, being fairly dim-witted, was assuming that D would hide the letter somewhere where G himself would have done so, rather than putting himself into D’s mind and considering what he would do. Dupin, being highly intelligent, is able to assess the intelligence of his adversary, thus enabling Dupin to work out where D would be most likely to hide it. It’s a lengthy explanation, with much talk of poets and mathematicians and how their minds work, and I fear I found it frankly dull. My second major annoyance, and I know this was typical of the time, is Poe’s dropping in of bits of Latin and French – even the last line is a quote in French, and I had to google the translation. Clearly Poe was only aiming his story at the highly educated of his time, since I can’t imagine your ‘ordinary’ reader having an in-depth knowledge of the works of Crébillon (who?).
The influence on Sherlock Holmes couldn’t be clearer, but Conan Doyle is a much better story-teller and, for all his faults, Holmes is a much more likeable character. Poe’s narrator has no personality to speak of, nor even a name, while Watson makes up for any warmth that Holmes might lack.
Again I admire the originality and am grateful for anything that inspired the Holmes stories, but this one failed to engage or entertain me. Worth reading, I grudgingly suppose, for its place in the history of detective fiction… here it is.
* * * * *
Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓
Overall story rating: 😦 😦