CHENNAI: Edgar Allan Poe is the father of the detective mystery, and C August Dupin, the private detective, is the template from which all fictional detectives are drawn. The Purloined Letter, which I will talk about today, is one of three stories written by Poe featuring Dupin, and is the best of the three, in my opinion.
The Prefect of Parisian Police, G____, gives Dupin and his friend the narrator a visit at Dupin’s apartment, the iconic No. 33 Rue Donot, Faubourg St Germain, in Paris. He is rather frantic, there has been a theft in broad daylight — and perhaps the prefect could do with Dupin’s help. A letter has been taken from an important Parisian lady. The contents of the letter are such that they could lead to major scandal.
The important lady was, one day, reading this scandalous letter in her chamber when a royal gentleman walked in. The contents of the letter, if revealed to the royal, would be catastrophic, so the important lady keeps it covered on her desk — she was not able to get it into her desk drawer quickly enough. The royal does not see the letter, but his companion D______, a minister of some sorts, does see the letter, and quickly pockets it. The lady cannot stop him, fearful as she is of the contents of the letter being revealed to the royal. Since then, D_____ has been blackmailing the lady to pass on to him him political information, which endangers the security of the nation. The important lady has now secretively solicited the help of the Prefect in retrieving the letter, but the police have been unsuccessful in their pursuit. They have tried everything — from surreptitiously searching the house of D______ to waylaying him in the streets — but there has been no trace of the letter. Can Dupin help?
The Purloined Letter is a masterpiece of pure detection. There are no murders, not even much physical action. What you find instead is pure ingenuity from Dupin, an antagonist who is almost as intelligent as Dupin; a passively observing narrator (who is though not quite an assistant), and the bumbling police. Ah, all the common tropes of detective fiction, the reader would say. But when is a trope not a trope? It’s when one is reading the piece which introduced the trope. This story was published in 1845.
Edgar Allan Poe is one of the great names of literature. A poet of virtue, The Raven, his masterpiece is one of the most famous poems written. Along with being acknowledged as the founder of the detective genre, he was also a pioneer of science fiction writing; and his stories of horror and macabre, such as The Tell-Tale Heart continues to be widely read. And without Dupin, there would have been no Holmes, no Marlowe, no Byomkesh, and no Yukawa. The Purloined Letter is an important milestone in the history of detective fiction, and a thoroughly brilliant one.
(The writer is Financial Architect in angalore, whose short stories have been published in magazines in India and Singapore)