Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Like many of Poe’s tales, this one is written in a complex idiom that smacks of archaism—and did so even at the moment of his writing. The language tends to be somewhat stilted, and the insertion here of foreign phrases (mostly, although not exclusively, French) puts the situation and the characters at some distance from the average reader. Poe is careful to set the tale in a distant and alien locale, the ambience of which is minutely evoked, with precise references to quarters of Paris, to articles of clothing and furniture, and to the whole unfamiliar business of court intrigue. The net results of these distancing effects are to render the tale more exotic and to make the preternatural powers of observation and ratiocination exhibited by Dupin appear plausible in the context. To the extent that the world of the story is clearly not one familiar to any of Poe’s readers, contemporary with the tale or subsequent, it can be argued that the extraordinary events of the plot seem less fantastic. In such a world, such characters may be said to make sense.
The narrative itself is so constructed as to reinforce the sense of mystery that pervades this world, as the position of the narrator remains entirely obscure from beginning to end. He never reveals anything substantive about himself, and one might surmise that he is merely a formal device for getting the story told, a means for introducing the real protagonist, Dupin, and for giving the latter an...
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The Purloined Letter (Magill Book Reviews)
As he did in “THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE” and “THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET,” Dupin outshines the police in solving a seemingly insoluble crime.
Unlike the other two tales, which involve gruesome murders of women, “THE PURLOINED LETTER” presents only petty thievery and deception as the crime. The tale’s mock heroic tone is suggested even by the title’s description of the missing letter not as “stolen” but as “purloined.”
The Prefect of the Parisian police, Monsieur G-----, actually knows the identity of the thief, the Minister D-----, but the letter itself must be found in order to protect the honor of a lady being blackmailed. Despite an exhaustive search of the culprit’s apartment over a three-month period, the Prefect has not found the document and appeals to Dupin for assistance in the matter.
As in “THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE,” Dupin’s strategy is to match wits with the culprit. Dupin and the Minister D----- are, in many respects, alike. Both are poets and mathematicians who tend to think in a similar fashion, both find the letter in plain sight, and, significantly, both use the letter for personal gain. The Minister uses it for political advantage, while in the end Dupin extracts a large reward from the Prefect.
Dupin claims the reward by handing the letter in question to the Prefect after a search of the Minister’s apartment that involves some deception and trickery. Dupin...
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The Mass-Market Publishing Industry in America
In the mid-1820s, Poe was one of many writers on the East Coast submitting his works to the growing mass-market publishing industry. Better transportation and improvements in paper production and printing technologies led to the establishment of several newspapers, magazines, and book publishers, and writers and editors clamored to be a part of it.
Copyright Issues for American Authors
In these early years of publishing, American authors were unprotected by any strict copyright legislation, something for which writers like Poe lobbied heavily. Because writers could not protect their works from being plagiarized or reprinted without their permission, they realized that the value of their works would drop after the first printing. As a result, many authors guarded their unpublished works closely, so that they could negotiate higher payments for the initial publication. Poe mocked this trend in his story, "The Purloined Letter," where the narrator notes that it is the "possession, and not any employment of the letter, which bestows the power." Says Terence Whalen, in his essay, "The American Publishing Industry," "Regardless of what it may have meant to the queen, the stolen letter retains its power only so long as its contents remain secret." Whalen further notes that with this treatment of the letter, Poe "develops the tendencies of the capitalist publishing...
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Many critics agree that with tales of ratiocination like "The Purloined Letter," Poe earned the title of father of the modern detective story. Three of C. Auguste Dupin's characteristics in particular—his mysterious nature, his civilian position, and his deductive reasoning—influenced the detectives found in both literature and film.
When Poe introduces Dupin, he provides very little information about his background. He and the narrator sit in the dark, smoking their pipes. When the Prefect visits him to talk about the case, Dupin purposely does not light the lamp, saying that "if it is any point requiring reflection.... we shall examine it to better purpose in the dark." This idea, of the mysterious, silent detective sitting and smoking in the dark while listening to his clients' cases, is one of the hallmarks of future "private-eye" stories.
Like these private eyes, Dupin is also a civilian. Although he is outside of the law, the Prefect still comes to talk with Dupin any time he has "some official business" that gives him "a great deal of trouble." In this case, as in many other detective stories, the Prefect gives Dupin privileged information, such as when he is describing the importance of the letter: "I may venture so far as to say that the paper gives its holder a certain power in a certain quarter where such power is immensely valuable." Although the Prefect tries to keep this information...
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Compare and Contrast
1840s: Samuel Morse, American portrait painter, invents Morse Code, a code of dots and spaces that the United States government uses to keep messages secret from its political enemies.
Today: The United States constructs increasingly more sophisticated methods of keeping messages secret, and employs mathematicians to try to break the codes of other countries.
Early 1840s: Frenchman Louis Daguerre, a scene-painter, invents the daguerreotype, a method that uses a lens and light, along with a chemical reaction, to capture exact images. The first daguerreotypes are used mainly for landscapes—including the first photograph of Paris—and portraits.
Today: Photography comes in many types, including digital, and it is used in many educational, artistic, medical, and scientific applications. Photographs are also used as evidence in many police investigations and criminal trials.
Early 1840s: In the absence of any strictly enforced copyright laws, American authors guard their writings to increase the value of their works on first publication, since they are often reproduced by magazines without the author's permission.
Today: With the advent of the Internet and online publishing, it is easier than ever to gain free access to many copyrighted works. As a result, legal cases and debates involving intellectual...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the methods that modern-day criminal psychologists use to create a psychological profile. Using these methods, choose one of history's greatest criminals and write a profile about him or her in the modern style.
Research the methods of investigation used by the French police in the 1830s and 1840s, and write a three-page paper describing how their investigative methods do or do not correspond with the types of methods described by Poe in "The Purloined Letter.''
Although Poe was an American, he chose to place his story in France. Research the political, historical, and social climates of both France and America in the 1830s and 1840s, and pose a theory about why Poe may have chosen to set his story in France. Then, write a plot summary for a different version of the story, which takes place in America at the same time.
Compare C. Auguste Dupin to Sam Spade, the famous detective protagonist of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Write a scene where the two men meet in a modern-day setting. How would they react to contemporary issues and ways of thinking?
In the story, the French police use a microscope as an investigative tool. Research the history of the microscope. Besides police investigations, find five other ways that microscopes have been used in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.
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"The Purloined Letter’" was adapted into an audiocassette version in 1986 by Spoken Arts.
''The Purloined Letter'' was adapted into a full-cast audiocassette production in Edgar Allan Poe's Stories & Tales II, published by Monterey Soundworks in 2000. The audio collection also includes Poe's "The Black Cat," "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether," and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."
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What Do I Read Next?
Poe's detective stories featuring C. Auguste Dupin influenced many later mystery writers, most notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whose Sherlock Holmes eventually eclipsed Poe's Dupin. The Complete Sherlock Holmes: All Four Novels and 56 Short Stories, published by Bantam Classic and Loveswept in 1998, demonstrates Doyle's mastery of the genre.
Investigative methods have advanced considerably since the mid-nineteenth century. Greg Fallis' s Just the Facts, Ma'am: A Writer's Guide to Investigators and Investigation Techniques, published in 1998 by Writer's Digest Books, details the modern techniques that police use when conducting investigations, as well as the personal traits needed to become a successful investigator today.
In more recent detective fiction, female private investigators have joined the field. One of the most notable is by Sue Grafton, whose alphabet series of mysteries—featuring the gutsy female private investigator, Kinsey Millhone—are some of the most popular. The series starts with A is for Alibi, published in 1987 by Crime Line. In this novel, Millhone is hired by a woman who has served time in prison for murdering her husband but who wants Millhone to find the real killer.
Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, originally published in 1930 and reprinted by Vintage books...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Asselineau, Roger, ‘‘Edgar Allan Poe,’’ in American Writers, Vol. 3, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974, pp. 409-32.
Buranelli, Vincent, "Chapter 3: Return to Reality," in Edgar Allan Poe, in Twayne's United States Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.
Buranelli, Vincent, ‘‘Chapter 4: Fiction Themes,’’ in Edgar Allan Poe, in Twayne's United States Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.
Carlson, Eric W., ‘‘Edgar Allan Poe,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 74: American Short-Story Writers Before 1880, edited by Bobby Ellen Kimbel and William E. Grant, Gale Research, 1988, pp. 303-22.
Colton, George, ‘‘Poe's Tales,’’ in the American Review, Vol. II, No. III, September 1845, pp. 306-309.
Graham, Kenneth, Introduction, in Selected Tales, Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. vii-xxii.
Kennedy, J. Gerald, ‘‘Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849: A Brief Biography,’’ in A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 26.
Marlowe, Stephen, Introduction, in The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales, Signet Classic, 1998, p. xii.
Stedman, Edmund Clarence, "Edgar Allan Poe,’’ in Scribner's...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Burluck, Michael L. Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction. New York: Garland, 1993.
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytical Detective Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Kennedy, J. Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe, A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 2001.
Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University...
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