by Keith Taylor
A few years ago, Matthew Pearl's novel The Dante Club carved out a unique place for itself on the various best-seller lists. In it Pearl combined original historical research into the work and lives of leading nineteenth-century American writers Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and James Russell Lowell with a captivating murder mystery that kept the reader turning the pages even as it re-created the period of its action. It was a wonderful idea, but it seemed to me like something that could be done only once.
Obviously I wasn't thinking clearly enough about the rich mysteries of nineteenth-century American literature! In his recent The Poe Shadow, Pearl has turned his considerable intelligence and imagination to the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe. There are several stories of Poe's death, none of which is overly exact. What has made it into the cultural imagination probably because it mirrors the haunting darkness of Poe's tales is that he died drunk in Baltimore in 1849, when no one thought he should be anywhere close to that city. Of course it's a story that fits a bit too nicely with our received notion about the self-destructive nature of the artist, but the gaps in the tale have always been captivating.
Matthew Pearl didn't accept the notion, and he wanted to fill in the gaps. He has studied much of the work that has been done and combed the archives for documents from the period that might shed light on the issue. But he has also created a character, a smart young lawyer obsessed much as a character from a tale by E. A. Poe would be with finding the true story behind the death of the author. That young man, Quentin Clark, determines that he cannot solve the mystery of the death without the help of the French thinker who was the basis for Poe's most famous character the detective C. Auguste
Arts and Entertainment reviews and news.>> Blogs