Published by Random House
Review by W. R. Greer
In his impressive debut, The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl skillfully combined a murder mystery, historical fiction, and a love of literature into an entertaining and educational novel. With The Poe Shadow, he uses the same mixture of elements to create another mystery set in the past involving a famous American writer. It's becoming his own personal genre, and fortunately for us, he does it well.
The mystery at the center of this novel is the death of Edgar Allan Poe. He died in Baltimore in 1849 under poorly understood circumstances. Although he had relatives in Baltimore, his presence in the city, and his untimely death, were a surprise to those who knew him. The general public accepted the press's assertion that he was poor writer driven to a disgraceful death by his penchant for alcohol. The Poe Shadow begins with a young Baltimore attorney, Quentin Clark, noticing a quick funeral in a graveyard attended by only four mourners. "It was the saddest funeral ever seen," he recalls. "There wasn't one flower, wasn't one tear."
It wasn't until he read the next day's paper that Quentin discovered that the funeral he witnessed was for his favorite writer, Edgar Allan Poe. He had been corresponding with Poe and was eagerly waiting for a reply from him to arrive at the post office. Poe's death unnerves Quentin Clark to the point that he can't concentrate on anything. A combination of the strange circumstances surrounding Poe's death and the poor treatment of Poe as a writer and a man sends Quentin on a quest to find out exactly how Poe died and restore his reputation as a great American writer. This quest, however, becomes an obsession that threatens to undo his personal life.
Quentin Clark is the son of a wealthy businessman. His law partner and best friend is Peter, who was treated like a son by Quentin's father, who also financed his law practice. Quentin is in love with Hattie Blum, whom he's known almost his whole life. Everyone expects them to get married and Quentin is under increasing pressure to propose to her. It's a time in his life where he should be following the path laid out for him, pursuing his career and marriage and fulfilling his obligations within Baltimore society. Quentin is driven by inner forces he doesn't completely understand, but is determined to clear Poe's name and find out who was behind his death. He had found Poe's writings to be the work of a genius, a man who had challenged literary traditions, and wrote about the truth. Not finding the truth behind the author's death was an affront to the Poe's rightful place in history. Quentin also realized that his pursuit of this truth was challenging the societal restrictions placed on his life, stepping outside of tradition to find his own truths.
Almost immediately, threats are made against Quentin to back off his investigation. Others are reluctant to share any information with him. Peter tries to convince him that he's wasting time that he should be spending with the law practice. Hattie waits patiently for him, although her aunt, who controls her life, is taking an increasing dislike to Quentin's extracurricular activities. Quentin realizes that he can't get to the bottom of the mystery by himself and devises a plan to find the one person who can help him — the French detective who was the inspiration for Poe's fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin.
Quentin sets out to research who might have been this inspiration for Dupin, sending letters to potential candidates in France. Eventually he becomes convinced as to who might be the real Dupin, and sets off to Paris to find him. He finds Auguste Duponte, who was once famous throughout France for his ability to solve crimes that had bedeviled the police. Quentin is convinced that Duponte had mastered "ratiocination," a method described by Poe as "employing one's imagination to achieve analysis, and one's analysis to climb the heights of imagination." It's the ability to observe the most infinitesimal of clues and human behavior to solve mysteries that seem insolvable. It was an art perfected decades later by another fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.
Quentin finds Duponte, who announces that he's given up his career as an investigator. Quentin is beside himself to convince him to come to America and solve the mystery behind Poe's death. Duponte shows the occasional flash of his ratiocination skills, but withdraws from Quentin and refuses to help. Another potential inspiration for Poe's detective finds Quentin in Paris, claiming to be the real source for C. Auguste Dupin. Baron Claude Dupin tries to convince Quentin that he's the real deal, but Quentin is convinced that Duponte is his man. This competition finally convinces Duponte to accompany Quentin back to America, and Dupin announces he will also go to solve the crime by himself.
Once they arrive back in Baltimore, the competing investigations continue to run afoul of each other. Baron Dupin will use any means at his disposal to get the information he wants, whether through bribes, theft, intimidation, or blackmail. Duponte is willing to stay inside Quentin's mansion and study the information brought to him by Quentin. Dupin isn't so much interested in the truth as he is restoring his fame and fortune. He's planted stories about Poe's death in the newspapers and wants to sell tickets to his dissertation on who really killed Poe, whether it's truthful or not. Dupin's shady past follows him to Baltimore, where a couple hired goons begin to threaten Quentin, believing him to work for Dupin. Peter gets fed up with Quentin's obsession and Hattie's aunt decides that Quentin will no longer have any contact with her niece. Duponte seems to be making no headway in his investigation and Baron Dupin threatens to spread even more falsehoods about Poe's death. Quentin is in danger of losing the love of his life, his career at the law practice, and the goons on his tail begin to turn homicidal. When it appears things can't get any worse for Quentin, new difficulties arise that threaten his future.
Like his previous novel, Matthew Pearl artfully re-creates the era well, making 1849 Baltimore come alive through numerous arcane bits of information that flow seamlessly throughout the story. It's not just the physical details, but the mindset of the time, from the treatment of blacks, both freemen and slaves, to the expectations of proper behavior within high society. Quentin Clark has lived a life of privilege, inheriting his father's estate and money, but his refusal to follow this proper behavior threatens even his financial independence. It's easy for the reader to immerse himself in the story in a time and place that seems foreign to our modern world.
The Poe Shadow rests upon young Quentin Clark's shoulders, and initially, the novel teeters upon the brink because of him. For the first half of the book, Quentin comes across as naive and obsessive. Like Peter and Hattie, you almost wish he'd leave the details of Poe's death alone and get back to work and propose to Hattie. It's hard to understand not just his obsession, but his reaction to the events that unfold and his treatment at the hands of those who want him to leave Poe's death uninvestigated. He's immature, protests too much, and is in way over his head. Even once both Duponte and Dupin are both in Baltimore pressing the investigation, clues are uncovered at a slow pace and appear to offer little hope in uncovering the truth. It would be easy for many readers to put the book aside at this point. I'd strongly suggest they stick with it, though.
The second half of the book propels the story forward at a much quicker pace. The rivalry between Duponte and Dupin deepens, and Quentin isn't sure which one was Poe's real inspiration. The threats to Quentin's livelihood, freedom, and even his life, intensify, and in the process, Quentin finds many of the truths he seeks, including those inner truths about himself. He moves from being a whiny protagonist to the hero of the novel, a man who finds his place in a world he begins to understand.
While Quentin is fictional, Matthew Pearl uses him as more than just the central character. He's also the conduit for explaining what really happened to Edgar Allan Poe, how he came to be in Baltimore, and what events led to his death. Matthew Pearl uses The Poe Shadow to explain his own research into Poe's death and his explanation for what led to his demise.
The Poe Shadow ultimately succeeds as an entertaining mystery, as a historical depiction of pre-Civil War Baltimore, and as a reasonable explanation for the events that led to Poe's strange death. For those readers wanting to enjoy any or all of those aspects, Matthew Pearl's novel is time well spent.
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Read our review of The Dante Club.