I've always had a soft spot for the poetry and fiction of Edgar A. Poe, one of the greatest writers in American history, as well as the grandfather of whodunnits and modern horror.
And Matthew Pearl apparently has a soft spot too -- his follow-up to the bestselling "Dante Club" is a creepy, atmospheric, clever mystery surrounding the early death of Poe. The main character can be clueless, but it's made up for by genius detectives, retro writing, and musings on how a genius's art can affect others.
Edgar A. Poe is dead, unmourned and almost forgotten at the age of forty. This comes as a shock to pen pal Quentin Clark, who rapidly starts to suspect foul play. Even his recent engagement comes second to his wish to find out the facts. So he travels to Paris to find Auguste Duponte, the inspiration for Poe's brilliant C. Auguste Dupin, and convinces the reclusive ex-detective to come to Baltimore and solve the mystery.
Unfortunately, they are being followed by flashy Baron Dupin and his assassin wife; Dupin wants to make a name for himself, and pose as the REAL inspiration. Duponte ignores his obnoxious rival as he and Quentin go through Baltimore, collecting scant evidence, talking to witnesses and investigating Poe's own letters. But soon this investigation turns lethal, and Quentin finds himself as the primary suspect of Poe's death...
Edgar A. Poe's death is still something of a mystery, and people still debate what killed him. Rabies? Alcohol? TB? Nobody really knows, even now. So it was a brilliant stroke for Pearl to turn it into a murder mystery, complete with the real-life details as clues (such as Poe's dying cry of "Reynolds!"), and real-life people as characters.
Pearl writes like a 19th-century author transported to the 21st, with his true-to-the-time characterizations and slightly ornate prose. Even better, he spices up the whodunnit with meditations on genius -- how it can be misunderstood, how scandals can overshadow brilliant work, and even how great art can change our lives and free us from the mundane.
Atmospherically, it even resembles one of Poe's works. There are graveyards, misty streets, and the decayed grandeur of Baltimore. But Pearl includes a bit of comedy in the story, apparently to keep it from getting too grim, with the over-the-top Baron and his perky assassin/wife.
Quentin is probably the reigning flaw of the book. He's a naive, rather overeager young lawyer, but you'll want to kick him in the pants from time to time. But Duponte is a truly fascinating lead character in the vein of Poe's own writing, with his casual use of "ratiocination" (logical thinking) and his cool head.
"Poe Shadow" is not only a solid whodunnit, but a homage to one of the greatest American writers. Well-researched, dark and meditative, this is a wonderful historical mystery.