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The Poe Shadow: The Poe Mystery That He Did Not Write

Written by eastern writer on Friday, July 03, 2009

"The Poe Shadow" is best understood as a franchise follow-up to a very clever debut novel. In "The Dante Club," Matthew Pearl combined history, mystery and literature into a book that reveled in the grisly intricacies of Dante's "Inferno." He showed off great scholarly erudition and turned some of 19th-century New England's most celebrated three-namers — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes — into an elite squad of armchair detectives.

Naturally, Mr. Pearl's second book attempts to replicate this feat. Using Edgar Allan Poe as its literary catnip, the new novel tries to use Poe-related ratiocination as a means of generating Poe fever. Its afterword contains a cogent explanation of Mr. Pearl's deductions, citing specific questions about Poe's last days and ways in which "The Poe Shadow" answers them. Mr. Pearl stops short of only a "Nevermore"-quothing raven in his eagerness to leave a trail of Poe-related breadcrumbs running through this story.

The first and most difficult task for Mr. Pearl is to hook his reader into a Poe obsession. There is reason to justify this. Poe figures in other current fiction. He is alive and well as a West Point cadet in "The Pale Blue Eye" by Louis Bayard, and he remains a seminal influence on virtually any mystery story with a cerebral, talkative detective. Not for nothing is the Edgar, this genre's best-known award, named in Poe's honor.

And the facts surrounding Poe's demise have been subjected to obsessive scrutiny. Poe disappeared from Richmond, Va., on Sept. 26 or 27, 1849, landed in Baltimore five days later, was found there apparently sick and disoriented on Oct. 3 and died on Oct. 7. Even the most famous of all Poe-inspired masters of deduction, Sherlock Holmes (who first appeared in a magazine story in 1887, accompanied by a drawing that gives him Poe's big, brainy forehead) would have been intrigued by the ellipses in Poe's dying days. Was his last utterance "Reynolds," "Herring" or "Lord help my poor soul"? Debate is heated enough to have produced arguments for each of these deathbed possibilities.

"The Poe Shadow" is eager — too eager — to find entree into these matters. So its main character, Quentin Clark, is a Poe admirer with a groupie's ardor. Quentin has nitpicked Poe texts ("If the raven sits at the top of the chamber door, though, what lamplight would be behind him in such a way as to cast a shadow to the floor?"). He has written the great man some letters. And he has conveniently happened to witness Poe's lonely burial. Now he is convinced that Poe left him, Quentin Clark, to do Poe's bidding in the land of the living and save Poe's sullied reputation.

"Your interest strikes me as morbid," Poe's cousin aptly tells him. Quentin's partner in a law firm exclaims, "I thought you were finished with this Poe madness, Quentin!" But Quentin becomes the self-appointed, creepily devout flame keeper ("I was still only serving Poe as I had promised him") whose goals include discovering the true identity of C. Auguste Dupin, the Poe character who appears most notably in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." That story, which ought to be a necessary companion piece to "The Poe Shadow," has been immensely influential over time but makes ponderous reading today.

Mr. Pearl strives all too successfully to echo the fustiness of that classic prose. He favors a slow pace and painfully quaint locutions. For instance: "What dangerous restlessness had I been dandling!" "Whom did I await with palpitating breast?" "To say sooth, though, my hopes for elucidation were dim."

"The Dante Club" was a period piece too. But it was less bogged down by literary fidelity, perhaps because Dante's "Inferno" yields no conversational tone. It also managed more comfortably to incorporate action into a tale of deduction. This time, often clumsily, Mr. Pearl throws Quentin into the paths of mysterious strangers, has him clobbered a couple of times and even tosses him off a moving train. In a move that would have Poe spinning, he falls back on the old trick of having Quentin wrongly suspected of murder.

"The Poe Shadow," with its convoluted plotting and insistence on giving Poe's death a touch of international intrigue (the book is set in Paris as well as in Baltimore), also uses two dueling Dupins to churn its sense of mystery. One is the lofty Auguste Duponte, who shows off Dupin-like brilliant insights as well as the occasional clunker. The other is the more flamboyant Baron Claude Dupin, who calls himself "the upholder of justice for Edgar A. Poe and the true life model for the personage of C. Auguste Dupin of the Rue Morgue Murders." Both are entertainingly drawn, but Mr. Pearl overworks them to the point of confusion. Happily, he leaves out such real-life Dupin candidates as the lawyer André-Marie-Jean-Jacques Dupin.

In the end, as he touts his revelations about a fire, a poem about Poe's death and a lost letter, Mr. Pearl constructs an intriguing chain of theories. They are dramatized within "The Poe Shadow," but they are not easily extracted. The book's fulsome Poe-worship remains more peculiar than persuasive, to the point where the story's benighted skeptics begin to sound reasonable. "Talking of Poe, Poe, Poe!" one complains. "What is all this about Poe anyway?"

Says another: "I have read some of your friend Poe. It seems it consists chiefly of him saying plain things in a fashion that makes them hard to understand, and commonplace things in a mysterious form which makes them seem oracular." In this sense, "The Poe Shadow" is accurate to a fault.


Matthew Pearl

By Matthew Pearl.

370 pages. Random House. $24.95.
source: NY Times

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