The Hidden Lover of the Purloined Letter
Different critics have praised each of the three stories as the best, but Poe himself said that the last, The Purloined Letter, was his best, and it is both brilliant and half the length of the other two tales, which may make it more profound according to Dupin. Like the Rue Morgue, Poe returned to a fantastic, imaginary case after worrying about his reputation in misjudging the case of Mary Rogers a bit. Dupin and the narrator are smoking pipes by the fire discussing the two previous cases, “meditation and meerschaum,” as the narrator says, when the police chief, who pleaded with Dupin to take the case of Marie Roget, returns to ask him to take another case that he is charged to solve personally and can’t. The narrator says it is quite a coincidence, but not if Dupin knows the chief is coming.
The chief says the case isn’t a killing like the last two, but something simple that the cops can handle but Dupin might find interesting, as the case is odd, like Dupin himself. Dupin says maybe the case is too simple for them, as he said about the case and cops in the first story, and the chief laughs at this impossible suggestion, and says it is quite complicated, as someone in a high quarter had a document stollen from the royal apartments. Much as the word rape was absent from the second story, with many suggestive words with more syllables, such as “manhandle” or “maltreat” in its place, the chief tells us in so many indirect words that Minister D, what we are told of his name, entered the royal apartments and saw the queen reading a letter she tried to hide but couldn’t, so she left it on a table in plain sight. When the king arrives, the minister, recognizing the handwriting of the letter and seeing his chance to blackmail the queen, puts another letter down by the first, then picks up the queen’s letter and leaves, all while the king is there so the queen can’t say anything.
Clearly, like Mary and Marie, the queen is up to something, or someone. Poe’s audience would likely know from the papers that Caroline Princess of Wales wrote a letter to her husband King George IV over marital difficulties that got into the wrong hands, and it became a political scandal. Without saying it, we can imagine the queen has a lover other than the king, which is not only infidelity, but treason. The queen is mixing her interests improperly, but the minister is mixing business with his own power, so they are both committing crimes they can’t let the king figure out. Luckily, the king remains entirely clueless. The sinister minister, like Dupin, can read people, reading the queen correctly, first her anxiety and then her position. The queen has charged the chief with finding her lost letter, but we never learn anything else about its contents, its word or overall emotional point, but we suspect. Dupin notes the minister can’t use the letter openly, but as long as he holds on to it and doesn’t use it, he has the queen under his thumb.
The minister, like Dupin and the narrator, is out all night every night, and the chief had the entire police force, all the king’s men, turn over every inch of the minister’s apartments several times for hours without finding anything, and search every building two buildings over, using every technique to the fullest extent, checking all hiding places, testing the floor and the furniture, and the chief also says, without saying it directly, that he personally has dressed up with other cops as robbers, detained the minister twice, searched him, and didn’t find the letter. Apparently robbing people can count as time served on the force for her majesty’s honor. In the movie Duck Soup, Groucho Marx turns to his men protecting the matriarch at their final stand against the enemy, and says, “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did.”
Dupin says the minister is not a complete fool, but the chief says the minister is a poet, so he is nearly a fool. Dupin says true, “after a long drag,” with the narrator using a similar set of words for the sailor’s pause in the first story, showing us without telling us Dupin is offended and disagrees, but feels that he and others are various sorts of fools, some more self-aware than the chief of police. Dupin says he is guilty of a bit of poetry himself, and the narrator takes over questioning the chief much like Dupin, showing his time with Dupin has done his mind good, and that he can feel his friend’s frustration, but after suggesting several things the cops have tried, the narrator concludes the letter isn’t in the minister’s apartments, but Dupin says it is, and the cops should search again, even though they have gone over everything over-systematically with microscopes.
Months later the chief comes back, sadly sits in the same chair, the narrator asks him about the case, and Dupin asks about the reward. The chief won’t say what the reward is, but offers 50,000 Francs from his own checkbook, which suggests the reward is far larger, as if Dupin wouldn’t be able to read this in his response. Dupin takes another slow drag of his pipe, and tells the chief to cut him the check, and he’ll hand him the letter. The narrator, Dupin’s friend, is astonished, and had no idea the letter was there with them. The chief takes several minutes to respond, staring at Dupin silently, pulls out his checkbook, writes the check, and Dupin gets up and produces the letter from his writing desk.
The chief leaves with the letter immediately, without asking a word about how Dupin found it, which we can read in his haste, a likely indicator of how valuable it is for his pocket and position with the queen. Dupin again says the cops are often alright, but the letter wasn’t hidden, which is why they didn’t find it. The cops were looking for a hiding place, not for something hiding in plain sight. Dupin says many schoolboys are smarter, and he met an extraordinary boy who could best anyone at a simple guessing game of even and odd marbles held in the hand by clearing his mind and feeling what his opponent is feeling, just as the narrator suggests in the beginning of the Rue Morgue.
Dupin says the police methods were perfect, but they can’t step back and see the big picture, much as the words on large signs can be missed when nearby. The narrator asks if the minister is the poet, as there are two brothers, one a poet, the other a mathematician. Dupin says the minister is both a poet and a mathematician, and knows him well, and if he were merely a mathematician and not a poet, the cops would have caught him. The narrator says most of the world thinks mathematics the supreme form of reason, and Dupin says mathematicians and the French have tried to spread this error in the public as best as they can, and that mere math can’t reason at all. Dupin may be referring to Comte’s positivism, which is a major basis of modern analytic philosophy. Dupin says analysis conveys algebra about as much as ambitus, seeking office, implies ambition, as much as religio, what binds us, religion, and homines honesti, the upstanding citizens, are honorable men. Cicero used the term for men of his own political party. Thus, analysis is more than algebra, as thought is more than symbol and title.
Dupin quotes the French aphorist Chamfort, a favorite quote often quoted by Poe in person: You can bet on the fact that any idea or convention widely accepted is wrong, for it is simply convenient to the greatest number. Poe chooses a poet to show us the greater truth, while suggesting mere mathematics is for common dupes, who understand what generally. Abstract algebra does not lead to general truth, because in morality and chemistry the whole is more than the simple sum of its parts. It is not finite truths, atomic and complete in themselves, but truths of relation, of relationships between the elements of the situation. He accuses the mathematicians of Pagan mythology, polytheism, and says if you tell a mathematician truth is not simply equations, you should take care to step back, as they will try to knock you out, unaware of the overall emotions involved.
Dupin says he knew the minister left his apartment so the cops could thoroughly search it, so he visited the minister the other day with his green eyeglasses so he could use his weak eyes as an excuse to search the room while talking to the minister. He looked over the minister’s writing desk with no luck, but in a glance he saw a tattered letter pinned above the mantle, in plain sight, and knew. Oddly, Dupin does not look over the mantle first, but at the minister’s desk. Dupin says that the daring, dashing, brilliant minister is beyond the chief and the cops, and has fooled everyone but him, so he leaves a gold snuff box on the minister’s table, returns the next day to fetch it, pays a man in the street to fire a gun in the air as if it misfired, and when the minister rushes to the window, nervous about violence, Dupin switches the letter on the mantle for a copy he created from his own desk at home.
Dupin says the minister would have killed him if he knew he had the letter, so he left quickly, but he left the minister a clue, as leaving it blank would simply be insulting, a verse that should let the minister know just how he was fooled when he next looks at the letter. Apparently Dupin wants to be complexly insulting, not simply insulting. The minister has stepped on a lot of people to gain more and more power, Dupin says, a monster of a man, and a genius, both poet and mathematician, so the worst of monsters. Dupin says the minister did him an evil once in Vienna, much as the bank clerk did him a favor once in the first story, which is again why Dupin solves the case, and so he leaves the minister a final quote, in his own handwriting, which the minister will recognize: A scheme so hateful, if it is not worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes.
In the ancient Greek myth, Thyestes sleeps with his twin brother Atreus’ wife, Atreus gets revenge by serving Thyestes his own children in a stew, and then Thyestes takes revenge on Atreus for killing his children. Dupin and Minister D of The Purloined Letter are twins, as the critic Milner argued, which many missed before him, both of them poets and mathematicians, the two brothers, both handsome, both brilliant, which leaves one more thing unsolved, like the sailor’s second in the Rue Morgue: Who is the queen’s lover?
It could be the chief, or the narrator, but there is only one possible candidate, who is handsome and brilliant, poet and mathematician, who seems to have little energy but dupes others and gets around, like his twin, but unlike his twin, not a monster, but someone who loves and cares for others. Because we are literally told Dupin, “produced the note from his desk” for the chief, Dupin is the lover, and he produced the note from his desk twice, the first time when he wrote it to the queen, as her lover, and the second time when he retrieved it for the chief. That is why his twin recognized the handwriting while the letter was in the queen’s hand from the beginning.