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The Purloined Letter

The material world … abounds with very strict analogies to the immaterial; and thus some color of truth has been given to the rhetorical dogma, that metaphor, or simile, may be made to strengthen an argument, as well as to embellish a description.  The principle of the vis inertiae, for example, seems to be identical in physics and metaphysics.  It is not more true in the former, that a large body is with more difficulty set in motion than a smaller one, and that its subsequent momentum is commensurate with this difficulty, than it is, in the latter?  That intellects of the vaster capacity, while more forcible, more constant, and more eventful in their movements than those of inferior grade, are yet the less readily moved, and more embarrassed and full of hesitation in the first few steps of their progress?  

                                                                                                                          Auguste Dupin

There is an old argument promoted by mostly young men that the world is far too complex to have been created by a single entity – as if a billionth of this Entity’s power would be at all fathomable to us highly evolved primates, but that’s really beside the point.  The mortal flaw in such an argument is that the most recondite and brilliant among us will guide us to the path of truth because if they cannot, their progeny undoubtedly will.  Arrogance of this sort commonly emanates from the flippant interviews given by top scientists who denounce any miracle – anything that can be grasped by an average mind with sufficient faith and imagination – in lieu of abstract and frankly absurd notions of our universe that are completely untenable because we have still but a small fragment of the technology that would allow us to evaluate such data.  We are so close to knowing how our solar system functions, said one smug gentleman recently (paraphrased to keep the Google hounds off his trail), and a mission to Mars will confirm what we have always believed: that Mars is the future residence of humanity.  If such poppycock strikes you as profound insight from a learned scholar, then by all means book your one-way ticket redwards.  But if knowledge encompasses more than subject equations that contradict one another because all numbers and facts eventually contradict one another, you might delight in this famous tale.

We begin with Dupin and our nameless narrator sitting in a Paris apartment in much the same positions as another, subsequent crimefighting duo, waiting for the world and its mysteries to come to them.  These riddles arrive in the form of the local Prefect, a certain Monsieur G., who “had a fashion of calling every thing ‘odd’ that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of ‘oddities,’” and is unmistakably the victim of the story’s epigraph.  The Prefect, at once a justice-seeker and an unabashed admirer of the powerful and affluent, is investigating a theft he can only describe in broad and rather opaque terms:

I have received personal information, from a very high quarter, that a certain document of the last importance has been purloined from the royal apartments.  The individual who purloined it is known; this beyond a doubt; he was seen to take it.  It is known, also, that it still remains in his possession … it is clearly inferred from the nature of the document, and from the nonappearance of certain results which would at once arise from its passing out of the robber's possession; that is to say, from his employing it as he must design in the end to employ it.

We should always be disinclined to trust a man who spends over a hundred words when one would suffice.  Nevertheless, the point is made and what follows is a meticulous recounting of the event of the theft itself and the paramount value of that document to a certain lady in high standing.  Names are never mentioned because the characters involved are the prototypes of the scandal that can only afflict those unsullied by the daily grind; for the same reason are the amounts that have been extorted from her ladyship since that fateful day likewise accorded no room on our crisp, white pages. 

In good police procedural fashion, the Prefect continues to itemize the searches conducted by himself and his staff in the furrowing and organized ransacking of the robber’s apartment.  He also reports that the letter, whose contents are incendiary and its appearance known, has not been found despite months of thorough visits.  It is here that Dupin, who has been generally silent and pensive, asks his friend how exactly his team proceeded.  He also asks whether amidst the checks for hidden cabinets or empty chair legs the Prefect had snooped around the most obvious of locations for a piece of paper, the robber’s desk.  He gets a response that does not surprise him in the least:

Certainly; we opened every package and parcel; we not only opened every book, but we turned over every leaf in each volume, not contenting ourselves with a mere shake, according to the fashion of some of our police officers.  We also measured the thickness of every book-cover, with the most accurate admeasurement, and applied to each the most jealous scrutiny of the microscope.  Had any of the bindings been recently meddled with, it would have been utterly impossible that the fact should have escaped observation.  Some five or six volumes, just from the hands of the binder, we carefully probed, longitudinally, with the needles.

That this search could have taken days need not concern us; the perpetrator is a government official whose thievery wins him a massive amount of leverage, but it is his being both “a mathematician and a poet” that enables him for months to outgeneral the Parisian police.  Ultimately this same Prefect who boasts of owning “keys … with which [he] can open any chamber or cabinet in Paris,” is cajoled into revealing the amount of the reward offered for information leading to the acquisition of the letter – an offer that to the impoverished Dupin does not fall on deaf ears.

I fear that mystery buffs have always been disappointed by The Purloined Letter precisely because it is not really a mystery, but a philosophical fragment in anecdotal guise.  In a way, of course, they have it quite right.  What Poe occasionally lacks in his elegant amblings are the tantalizing turns and suspense that keep awake and conjoined a reader and his bedside lamp.  Not that there aren’t moments when we wonder what will happen next; there are just so many more that we cannot simply decide to forego.  Then again, we could probably do with fewer monstra horrenda roaming about – especially from the house of Atreus.

Reader Comments (2)

It's a brilliant story, I think! Edgar Poe is great...

Perhaps, you will be interested to watch 1982 Russian TV adaptation of The Purloined Letter - with English subtitles that I did:

December 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlexander S.

Thanks, Alexander, for your comments and suggestion!

December 19, 2014 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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