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The Purloined Letter

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Minister D
Minister D— is a daring political opponent of the French Queen; he steals one of her letters and uses it to blackmail her so that he can achieve his political ends. Although the Queen knows he has stolen it, neither she nor the police Prefect, another one of her allies, can recover the letter openly, for fear of publicizing its contents.

The Minister knows this, and he also knows that the police will try to search his home whenever he is away. At one point, he purposefully leaves to let them do this, because he has hidden the letter in an ironically obvious hiding place, where he is certain the police will not look for it. Without the Minister's knowledge, Dupin, the hired detective, deduces that this is exactly what the Minister has done, and on a visit to see the Minister, Dupin notices the letter sitting in a letter rack. On a second visit, the Minister is distracted by a diversion that Dupin has set up, and Dupin secretly switches the purloined letter with a fake letter. Although the Minister's fate is never seen, Dupin tells the narrator that since the Minister does not know about the fake letter, he will try to use it as he has used the real one, and it will backfire in his face, leading to his political downfall.

C. Auguste Dupin
C. Auguste Dupin is the detective in the story, whom the Prefect has called upon in past Poe stories to solve mysteries. In ‘‘The Purloined Letter,’’ the Prefect visits Dupin to get help in finding a purloined—or stolen—letter.

With the help of prompting questions and statements, largely from the narrator—who is a friend of Dupin—the Prefect provides Dupin with the details of the case. The letter has been stolen from the Queen, in her presence, by the Minister D— , a known political opponent. However, due to the sensitive nature of the letter's contents, the Queen and her allies, including the Prefect, cannot seize the letter openly, and so have tried to search the Minister's home in private. Dupin asks questions about the Prefect's search methods to determine if the search has been handled correctly. Dupin says that the Minister has conducted a good search, yet he encourages the Prefect to make a thorough search of the premises. The Prefect is confused, but takes his advice. However, a month later, when the Prefect returns to Dupin's home, he has still found nothing. On this second visit, Dupin asks the Prefect about the reward for finding the letter, and the Prefect says that it is fifty thousand francs. Dupin has the Prefect make out the check, then produces the letter.

Later, Dupin explains to the narrator the methods of deductive reasoning that he used to figure out where the Minister was hiding the letter. He notes that the Parisian police have done the best that they could, because they and the Prefect are operating on a faulty assumption: they assume that the Minister would try to hide the letter in some "secret" compartment, and thus, all of their efforts are concentrated on searching in hidden places. Dupin explains how, by knowing details about a person's behavior and background, one can figure out his actions. In this case, Dupin knows that the Minister is aware of the police's searches, and knows that the police will look in the most hidden spots, but will ignore any area that is in plain view.

Under the pretense of a social visit, Dupin visits the Minister and almost immediately locates the purloined letter in a letter...

(This entire section contains 1083 words.)

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rack on the wall. On a second visit, Dupin creates a diversion, during which time he grabs the stolen letter, replacing it with a fake copy.

See Monsieur G.

Monsieur G
Monsieur G is the Prefect of the Parisian police, and a political ally of the French Queen; after the Queen's letter is stolen by the Minister D—, the Prefect is charged with finding it. He attempts to recover it on his own by using standard search methods. He and his police force, believing that they are being sneaky, break into the Minister's home every night for three months. On each of these nights, the Prefect and the police perform highly scientific methods in their exhaustive search of potential hiding spots, both in and around the premises.

After this dogged search yields no result, the Prefect visits C. Auguste Dupin, a man who has helped him solve cases in the past. He explains the situation to Dupin, including the various methods that he and the police force have used, and Dupin encourages him to go back and try again. The Prefect returns to Dupin's home a month later, saying that he still can't find the letter, and that the reward is even larger now. At Dupin's request, the Prefect makes out a reward check to Dupin, who promptly produces the letter. The Prefect rushes off to return the letter to the Queen, and does not stay to hear the explanation that Dupin gives to the narrator about how he found the letter.

The Minister
See Minister D.

The Narrator
The unnamed narrator is a friend of C. Auguste Dupin, the detective in the story, and serves as a foil to Dupin. The narrator's presence enhances the idea that Dupin is an incredibly smart and logical person.

When the story begins, the narrator is at Dupin's home, smoking. The narrator is remembering how Dupin has helped to solve two other mysteries, the murders in the Rue Morgue and the murder of Marie Rogêt. The Prefect arrives, saying that he needs Dupin's help recovering a stolen letter from an already identified thief. Throughout the story, the narrator asks a number of direct questions that help to advance the plot. In this way, the narrator serves as the reader's representative, by asking the questions that are on the reader's mind. The narrator's questions are directed at both the Prefect and Dupin. In both cases, the matter eventually comes back to Dupin, who then shows his intellectual prowess through his answers. This trend continues throughout the story, and concludes with the long, final conversation between the narrator and Dupin, after the Prefect has taken the purloined letter and left. Here, as the narrator prompts Dupin with questions and statements, Dupin reveals how he deduced where the letter was in the Minister's home, and how he recovered it.

The Prefect
See Monsieur G.