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The Purloined Letter

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Is "The Purloined Letter" a successful detective story? Why or why not?

Quick answer:

"The Purloined Letter" is a successful detective story, as it meets the criteria outlined in "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" by Willard Huntington Wright. The protagonist, C. Auguste Dupin, embodies the traits of a true detective, solving crimes through naturalistic means and summarizing thoughts of various characters. The story's plot is clear and easy for readers to follow, allowing them the same opportunity as Dupin to solve the mystery. The perpetrator has personal motives for his crime, and the evidence is hidden in plain view, making the story engaging and suspenseful.

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Poe can actually set the standard of success for detective stories, considering that he wrote the prototype to all literature works of this genre, in the first place. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", published on April 20, 1841 is considered to be the first detective story ever written.

It is generally accepted that Poe was inspired by the Mémoires of François-Eugène Vidocq, who founded the first detective bureau (in history) and set it up in Paris in the year 1817. Since Vidocq's book was published around 1828 or 1829, it is likely that Poe became quite enthusiastic with the mysterious nature of finding out, through clues and common sense, answers that would never be found otherwise. 

"The Purloined Letter"

"The Purloined Letter" was published in 1844, which is three years after the publication of "Rue Morgue". However, the story serves as a kind of continuum, since it is one of the many cases of original "Rue Morgue" detective, C. Auguste Dupin. To determine the effectiveness of this particular story lets observe some of the "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" by Willard Huntington Wright (a.k.a. S.S. Van Dine), published in 1928 in American Magazine. This article is generally accepted as one of the most comprehensive in the analysis of this type of stories. 

As we follow Van Dine's rules, let's first look at the man solving the mysteries. C. Auguste Dupin reunites traits required in Van Dine's article

  • No personal love interest, but a complete passion for solving crimes
  • The detective is not one by name, but by actions. The moment Dupin actually starts "detecting" cues and making correlations is when he actually embodies the true meaning of being a "detective". 
  • The detective uses strictly naturalistic ways to solve the crime. In other words, no extra help from the supernatural, chance, or convenient coincidence. Deductive and inductive thinking are a must. 
  • The detective is one deus ex machina capable of bringing the thoughts of several characters and summarize them into one. This is not only the case of Dupin, but also of those who came after him in literature, such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

Now, let's look at the actual plot. The elements that will come together to bring the mystery to light must be in place in a way that is interesting and easy to follow.

Readers have the same opportunity to solve the mystery as Dupin

According to Van Dine, 

The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

It is clear that in "The Purloined Letter"Poe was neither too elaborate nor complex in his treatment of the evidence. It can even be retold in one sentence: A compromising letter written to the Queen of England by a disgruntled Minister. This is simple enough to follow when it is the reader's turn to put the facts together. 

The perpetrator has personal motives, and situations that are relevant to the readers should be introduced.

Also in Van Dine's article, 

The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance.

Both statements fit in "The Purloined Letter"The Minister had personal reasons to blackmail the Queen. Money, of course, is one of them. However, in a time (19th century) when blackmail was commonplace, the use of this social reality in a fictional story was not just clever but relevant to the readers of the time. 

One final element to consider, and one which is of utmost importance, 

The evidence should be hiding "in plain view". 

Van Dine writes, 

The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it.

In "The Purloined Letter" the smoking gun that Dupin was looking for, the letter itself, was in also hiding in plain view: dangling from a ribbon in the center of the mantlepiece. Surely, the minister already figured the hidden spots where investigators would try and look first. Hence, what could be more deceiving than  not hiding the letter, and leaving it be a part of all the other items in the room? Therefore, this is yet another way to show that Poe's story sets the standards for quality and effectiveness in detective literature. 

The "discovery" is where the magic happens in detective stories, and the reason why adepts love them so much. Being able to put facts together, remember details, make correlations, and establish motives is a formulaic way to bring to life something lurking right in front of our eyes. This requires active participation from the reader and very clever writing from the author. 

Therefore, "The Purloined Letter" definitely reunites effective techniques in storytelling and suspense that makes it a very successful story in its kind. 

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