THE PURLOINED LETTER
by Edgar Allan Poe
Tea, Tonic, and Toxin is a book club and podcast for people obsessed with mysteries and thrillers. In reading, we’ll explore ideas about the books and about ourselves. We started with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Now let’s compare it with “The Purloined Letter.”
Poe called “The Purloined Letter” “perhaps the best of my tales of ratiocination.” The story, published in 1844, is an excellent mystery, minus the Gothic horror of “Rue Morgue.” Together, Poe’s stories form the foundation of the mystery story as we know it.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
- Let’s look at the opening lines: “At Paris, just after dark one gusty evening in the autumn of 18—, I was enjoying the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum, in company with my friend C. Auguste Dupin, in his little back library, or book-closet, au troisieme, No. 33, Rue Dunot, Faubourg St. Germain. … We gave [G–] a hearty welcome; for there was nearly half as much of the entertaining as of the contemptible about the man, and we had not seen him for several years … [he called] every thing ‘odd’ that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of “‘oddities.'”
What do we know about the story and about the narrator’s conceit? The narrator judges Monsieur G- for being inept, yet he himself never solves a mystery. He doesn’t seem superior in any way to the inspector, but seems to feel himself superior by virtue of his friendship with Dupin. Have you ever felt yourself more knowledgable or elite or better in some way simply because of your friends or associations?
- Why do you think Poe tells the story using dialogue instead of action?
- Sarah would like to talk about the story’s flow. The Murders in the Rue Morgue started out dense, but then the pace picked up. The Purloined Letter started out simple enough but then got dense. Was that intentional, or was it all the same to Poe? Sarah imagines it was intentional and is reminded of Austen who said, “I do not write for such dull elves as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.” And yet Poe’s style flies in the face of modern writing focused on simplicity, clarity, and flow. Are we asking too little of others and ourselves? Would asking more doom a writer’s success in the modern age?
- What about Poe’s vocabulary? Whoa, right?
Ratiocination – the process of exact thinking, a reasoned train of thought.
Admeasured – to measure off or out; apportion, to measure the dimensions of a vessel.
Meerschaum – tobacco pipe made of meerschaum, a fine light white clayey mineral in Asia Minor used for tobacco pipes.
And so much French and Latin. With no footnotes. Are we losing the ability to express ourselves with nuance (and be understood as such)? If so, what’s to blame? Contemporary media, egocentrism, anti-intellectualism? What have we lost?
- A letter is stolen. No murder. No whodunnit. Such an interesting premise. But where’s the letter? To that end, what’s in that letter? Why doesn’t anyone seem to care what the letter actually says? What here is foundational to the way later detective stories were written?
- Dupin mentions a game of puzzles played on a map. One player picks a city or river from the map. Dupin says unskilled players choose names shown on the map in small print. More experienced players choose large-print names because people are more likely to miss things that are “excessively obvious.” In other words, the truth is hiding in plain sight. For example, the letter is right in front of the royal spouse, but he can’t see it. Later, it’s in front of G–, who can’t see it. D– also doesn’t recognize that Dupin swapped letters (pulling D’s own trick). Much has to do with individual ability to truly see.
- Let’s talk about games more generally. Poe returns to his discussion of games in discussing intelligence — this time a simple marbles game, even and odd. Success depends on the player’s ability to gauge the opponent’s next move. Sort of like rock paper scissors. What games do you prefer, and what’s their connection to intellectual analysis? Can mirroring help you understand your opponent? Let’s also talk about the tension between mathematics and poetry and the seat of the intellect.
- G— and his men skulk through the shadows every night, using “fine long needles” and “microscopes.” They sneak into D—’s house and the two neighboring houses. They did all this sometime between 1800-1844, when the book was set. Mind. Blown.
- The Dupin in Purloined Letter seems different than the Dupin of Rue Morgue. Money, money, money, with a side of revenge? Have you ever wanted revenge so sweet?
- The scientific principle of inertia basically states that things like to be still (or inert). It’s easier for a small body to get moving than it is for a large body. Dupin says a person with a big brain will have more trouble getting started on something than a person with a small brain. I read this and thought to myself, true story.
- How did Dupin solve the crime? Did you solve it? Is it possible for readers to solve it?
- Is it possible that Dupin and D— are brothers? Their names have the same first initial, they know each other well, and they think alike. And at the end there’s that quote in Dupin’s letter about Atreus and Thyestes, lifelong sibling rivals. Or is it simply that the mastermind criminal and the mastermind detective are two sides of the same coin?
TEASERS & TIDBITS
Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel Red Harvest is more than just a gripping detective story. It’s also a political statement, inspired
When Dorothy L. Sayers wrote Whose Body? (her debut novel, published in 1923), she introduced a detective who would go
If you’re a fan of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, I’m sure you’re already familiar with Hercule Poirot, the eccentric Belgian
Long before he started writing his own detective stories, Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton was already a fan of the genre.
ABOUT TEA, TONIC & TOXIN
Tea, Tonic, and Toxin is a book club and podcast for people who love mysteries, thrillers, introspection, and good conversation. Each month, your hosts, Sarah Harrison and Carolyn Daughters, will discuss a game-changing mystery or thriller from the 19th and 20th centuries. Together, we’ll see firsthand how the genre evolved.
Along the way, we’ll entertain ideas, prospects, theories, doubts, and grudges, along with the occasional guest. And we hope to entertain you, dear friend. We want you to experience the joys of reading some of the best mysteries and thrillers ever written.
Sarah loves getting to the bottom of any mystery having to do with life, love, work, play, personality, or process dysfunction.
Carolyn has loved mysteries ever since she and her sister started the highly successful CarMich Detective Agency when they were kids.