Daniel Stashower previously explored Arthur Conan Doyle's life and writings in the Edgar Award-winning A Teller of Tales. He now tracks the strange maelstrom caused by a grisly murder that sparked the rise of sensationalist journalism, spurred social reform and influenced the fortunes and literary legacy of a great American writer. The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder is a whodunit that not only investigates a violent killing, but provides entree into the desperate, impoverished and imagined world of Poe.

Young, beautiful Mary Rogers is a clerk in a New York tobacco emporium. Noted for her charms and her slightly wicked daring for working in a male-oriented establishment she is popular with customers, enjoying notoriety in the society columns. In July 1841, Mary goes missing for three days, after which her violated body is discovered floating in the Hudson River. The murder touches off fascinated horror, bungled investigations and overwrought argument among the New York populace, police and newspapers. But the unsolved case goes cold, until the brilliant, unstable Poe resolves to turn the tragedy into personal gold: He has his fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin, solve the murder in a serialized magazine story, The Mystery of Marie Roget. Stashower's well-paced, thoroughly researched blend of historical narrative and detective novel is imaginative and ably captures the boisterous sprawl of 19th-century New York, the activities of its numerous cutthroat newssheets and the sad lives of both Rogers and Poe. Stashower shows command of the mystery genre and considerable insight into Poe's oeuvre, but the book's pace stumbles as it heads toward denouement, hampered by a lengthy analysis of Poe's editorial revisions to the final installment of Marie Roget. In spite of this distraction, The Beautiful Cigar Girl is, as Stashower says of Poe's fictional sleuthing, an astonishing gambit.

Alison Hood writes from San Rafael, California.

 

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