The Purloined Letter
by Edgar Allan Poe
C. Auguste Dupin
Dupin is a young, French, private detective, and the star of "The Purloined Letter." He's from a wealthy family but apparently dropped most of his inheritance on poker and loose women. (Okay, we don't actually know what he blew it on, but it's definitely gone.) Thanks to the earlier "Murders in the Rue Morgue," we know that he's living on very little money. Likes: smoking, sitting in the dark, reading, detections. Dislikes: stupidity.
Yep, that's about it. You may have noticed that "The Purloined Letter" really isn't about the characters. They're not people so much as talking heads, and Dupin may as well be a walking, talking, pipe-smoking brain-in-a-vat. Which, for this kind of puzzle story, is all we need. We're not looking for deep psychological insights. We want to be delighted with his cleverness, not moved by his tragic past.
So let's take a look at where Poe may have gotten some ideas for this character.
You'll probably recognize him from the hundreds, if not thousands of TV, movie and book detectives that came after him. Perhaps the most famous of these is Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. If you've read any Holmes' stories, you've already picked up on the similarities, and Doyle copped to it.
(Have a thing for quirky private detectives? Check out this essay for a background on fictional sleuths from Dupin and Holmes to Monk and House.)
Dupin came before Sherlock, but he doesn't pre-date the guy who may have been first, at least in European literature: French philosopher Voltaire's Zadig, hero of, you guess it, Zadig. Zadig is a shepherd hired by the king to find a missing sheep. Poe definitely read it; he refers to it in his story "Hop Frog." And Poe was probably also familiar with a sleuthing mademoiselle in German author E.T.A Hoffmann's Das Fräulein von Scuderi (1820).
Even cooler, though, is Poe had real-life inspiration for Dupin. J.M.B. Francois-Eugene Vidocq was a police detective in Paris under Napoleon. His "memoirs," semi-fictional stories of crime and detection, appeared in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, a magazine that Poe edited for a time. Poe even mentions Vidocq in the first of the Dupin stories, "Murders in the Rue Morgue."
What a lot of fictional detectives share is a cold approach to logic and reason. And Dupin is all about the logic. We get our first hint of his methodology in the opening sequence when he suggests to G— that "the mystery is a little too plain," a "little too self-evident" (12, 14). He's trying to get across that we can often miss solutions if they are too big, or too obvious.
You know, like when you answer the phone with, "Hang on, let me find my phone." Not that we've ever done that, of course.
The second half of the story is all about fleshing out this method. Dupin claims you have to actually be able to get into the heads of your adversaries to figure out what's going on, and you have to make it as physical as possible. In his story about the schoolboy champion of "even and odd," he notes that the boy says:
When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is anyone, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face as accurately as possible in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression. (96)
Dupin calls the boy's method "an identification of the reasoner's intellect with that of his opponent" (95). In other words, you get into someone's head to figure out exactly how his brain compares with yours. Dumber? Then you'll have to think like a dumb person. Smarter? Then you'll have to think like a smart person. (This skill would be very useful on exams.)
So, this is pretty standard crime drama fare these days. Almost every fictional detective uses this method. And what's cool is it does actually tell us something about Dupin's character: he's a chameleon. He's able to take on the thoughts and feelings not only of D— but of G—, as well—something that police office G— is totally unable to do.
On the one side, a ruthless criminal. On the other, a bumbling policeman. In the middle: a brilliant detective. Again, sound familiar? This is basically the plot of every detective story, ever. It might seem a little obvious to us now, but it wasn't obvious in 1844—especially because city police forces were pretty new. Case in point: Paris's organized police force didn't start until 1829, although it did have earlier forms of crime control. In 1838, Boston got the U.S.'s first police force—but the next one didn't show up until 1845, in New York City.
Point is, police forces are pretty new. Once uniformed police started patrolling the streets, people developed this idea of the criminal and cop as being two sides of the same coin. And the detective is the whole coin. He can be either criminal or cop, depending on, you know, how much sleep he got the night before or if his shoes are feeling a little tight.
We know for sure that Dupin could be a very successful criminal. The parallels between Dupin's purloining and D—'s purloining are, well, not exactly subtle. Yeah, he's on the side of the queen. But he's not on the side of the queen because he loves truth, justice, and the French way. He likes the queen, and he hates D—. It's personal.
Amateur Hour at the Rue Morgue
See, Dupin is an amateur. Like Sherlock Holmes, he's not in it for the money (although he does need the money). His job isn't detecting. His job, apparently, is just being awesome, because the detecting is something he does out of curiosity, or boredom, and sheer perverseness.
Dupin seems to have four major motivations: money, political and personal loyalty to the royal lady, revenge, and the desire to show off. He cares just as much about out-detecting the police detectives and outwitting D— as he does about seeing justice done. After all, how long has he had this letter? Was he just sitting on it waiting for G— to come back, or did he only decide to hand it over because he needed the money?
In fact, we don't even know if getting the letter back to the royal lady will serve justice, and we really don't know that Dupin cares about justice at all. As G— says, if that letter is made public, it "would bring in question the honour" of the royal lady. So, Dupin is basically working against D— to help the royal lady hide a scandal from her husband and possibly king.
Look, we're not saying it's right or nice for D— to steal letters and use them to blackmail people. But we do want to point out that there don't seem to be any "innocent" people in this story, Dupin included. What matters is who plays the game most skillfully—and, so far, it seems to be Dupin.Timeline