This year marks the 170th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Purloined Letter.” His tale of ratiocination (as he called it) helped pave the way for the mystery genre, just as his sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin, was a forerunner of that stock figure in whodunits—the brilliant amateur detective who solves cases that baffle the police.
“The Purloined Letter” was the third detective story by Poe, following Dupin’s earlier cases in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” The prefect of police informs Dupin that a compromising letter has been stolen from the boudoir of an unnamed female. While the police know the identity of the thief blackmailing the woman, an exhaustive search of his room (that included examining the joints of the furniture and probing cushions with long needles) has turned up nothing.
Enter Dupin, able to match wits with the brightest. Dupin understood that the clever blackmailer anticipated police searching his room for every possible hiding place, so instead “to conceal this letter, the Minister had resorted to the comprehensive and sagacious expedient of not attempting to conceal it.”
In other words, the thief hid it in plain sight. Could this story be where the idea behind that phrase originated?
As a long time fan of mysteries, I’d like to thank Poe for Dupin and his powers of ratiocination. However, I wonder if he could have written the same tale today when an actual letter is uncommon enough to attract the very attention blackmailers wish to avoid.
You can read the full text of The Purloined Letter online.