“can read circumstances and script the action; they share the initial D; and they both purloin the letter, an action which promises profit and allows us to see more clearly how detection becomes a kind of thievery as the investigator assumes possession of the hidden story and of the characters contained within it.” (Thoms 141)
Poe’s genius is also evident in how he criminalizes the solving of crime itself, thereby raising questions of morality. In other words, far from acting on noble intentions, Dupin undertakes to solve the crime only for personal benefit, namely a check for 50,000 francs. He hardly breaks a sweat for this hefty pay, for the prefect was the one made to pursue standard search and seizure protocols, which prove futile. Having thus eliminated the usual hiding places for the letter through the Prefect’s testimony, Dupin makes his master move like a seasoned chess player. Moreover, the method he employs is not ethically above that of the Minister, for Dupin too resorts to stealing. Here, Poe is highlighting the moral ambiguity of the whole enterprise. The moral ambiguity is further heightened when we take into account how the Royal Lady’s mission to get back the letter is not officially notified to authorities. Instead, she uses her position of power to use state apparatus for personal purposes. So, her actions are ethically dubious as well. Hence, The Purloined Letter is more than a mere detective story, for the detective and his client are not decidedly the righteous lot. In other words,
“Poe proceeds to destabilize what he has wrought by challenging the apparent opposition between good detective and bad criminal. The story critiques the authority of the detective, subverts his solutions, and thus resists closure. From the making of the facsimile and the act of re-stealing the three Dupin stories seem preoccupied with reflection, repetition, and the blurring of boundaries…we glimpse how the imaginative Dupin adopts the character and perspective of the ostensible criminal.” (Thoms 142)
Through a careful reading of The Purloined Letter, one can decipher a broader psychological device that Poe applies to his short stories. The key factor behind Dupin’s successful resolution of the case is his anticipation. This is made possible by being able to understand and rely on the pattern of behaviour of his subject – the Minister. Poe refers to it as ‘simplicity’, the “unitary characteristic of both mind and world” that aids Dupin’s predictions. Here, Poe is trying to approximate human behaviour to a scientific law by setting up a formula by which the several modes of human thought and action could be understood. First,
“there was the action of the commonplace, ordinary mind — the “real” side of man — which conformed to a calculus of probability simple to unmask merely by putting one’s own mind in logical reference and identification with it: Poe’s analogy was the boy who could easily outwit his fellows by guessing in which hand the marble was held. Next, the more complex, original mind was impelled toward simplicity, toward final and ultimate comprehension. It was the character of this mind to conceal itself, as did Minister D behind some other or inverted calculus of relevance.” (Davidson 219)
- Davidson, Edward H. Poe: A Critical Study. Cambridge, MA: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1957.
- Hayes, Kevin J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2002.