THE BEAUTIFUL CIGAR GIRL is attention-holding social and literary history nimbly written by Daniel Stashower. It is the story of a real crime committed in July 1841 in or about New York City that transfixed the media of the day, challenged Edgar Allan Poe to put his detective fiction theories to the test and transformed New York before eventually fading away in the public consciousness a few decades later.
If there is something to be learned by the ubiquitous episodes of the "Law and Order" and "CSI" franchises, it is that a murder is never straightforward. Just like those shows, when the lovely, alluring yet innocent seeming Manhattan store clerk who worked in a popular smoke shop frequented by men of all walks of life goes missing and her body is later found washing up near a waterfront park in Hoboken, New Jersey, Pandora's box is opened. Circumstantial evidence suggests connections to the city's gang culture and abortionists. There is a revolving door of individual suspects, too, who may or may not have been the victim's swains. The police department is largely night watchmen and process servers prone to corruption and unequal to the task of fighting and detecting crime. Then the media steps in and it is hyped beyond belief. In Philadelphia, where he has taken umbrage after burning just about every personal and professional bridge in New York, Poe reads the newspaper accounts and realizes that his ever-present money problems and professional ambitions could be resolved by inserting the fictive detecting methods he created for "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." He puts himself on the line, advertising that in his new story starring his detective Dupin, "The Mystery of Marie Roget," he will solve the puzzle.
To say more is to spoil this very real plot. I think Stashower does a fine job of balancing and interweaving the various strands of biography, social history, crime detection and the birth of detective fiction. He has a very direct but graceful way of writing and ordering his information. He evokes 19th century New York vividly. If you liked THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, then you should enjoy this. My only complaint, too small to demote the book a star, is that I wish the author were more explicit as to naming his sources when he quotes, for instance, "a writer of the day." There is a considerable bibliography at the end, but no idea which source gave up what information per se.