Once upon a midnight dreary
Like his hit debut novel The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl's second book, The Poe Shadow, deals with literary obsession, mystery and murder. This time, Pearl investigates the unexplained death of Edgar Allan Poe. Quentin Clark, a young Baltimore lawyer who admires Poe and had corresponded with him, takes it upon himself to discover what happened during the poet's last days. When he learns that the character C. Auguste Dupin, who solves puzzling crimes in several Poe stories, was based on a real person, Clark heads to France to find the real Dupin and bring him to America to solve the mystery. Poe's detective was gifted in ratiocination, which Clark defines as deliberate reasoning combined with imagination. It is not, he insists, interchangeable with logic. It has something to do with being able to see and understand things that other people cannot, and it is vital to the telling of this tale.
Though the novel gets off to a slow start, the pace picks up, and readers are soon taken on a wild ride through the streets of 19th-century Baltimore, as two Frenchmen who claim to be the inspiration for Dupin race each other to the truth. In the meantime, Clark has run-ins with royalty, international spies, slave traders and a female assassin, and imperils his law practice, his relationship with the woman he loves and his family home, not to mention his life. But like any good detective story, the novel eventually comes to a neat and rewarding conclusion in which all the strange loose ends are tied up.
No one truly knows what happened to Poe in the days before his death, but Pearl's fascinating theory (which draws liberally from both fact and fiction) provides a satisfying hypothesis. The Poe Shadow is an entertaining tale of ratiocination that would make Poe himself proud.
Sarah E. White is a freelance writer in Arkansas.