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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl

The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl. New York: Random House, 2006. ISBN: 1-4000-6103-2

This is the second novel I've recently read relating to the life of Edgar Allen Poe, and it is likely to not be the last, either. John May's Poe & Fanny (2004) was the first, and yet to come are Louis Bayard's The Pale Blue Eye and The Tell-Tale Corpse.

Matthew Pearl is apparently an eminent Poe scholar, having edited the Modern Library collection of Poe's C. Auguste Dupin tales, in which Poe essentially invented the modern detective story. In his author's note at the end of the book, and through a publisher's note at the very beginning, Pearl more or less claims to have solved the mystery of the strange death of Poe at the age of 40 in 1849.

The facts surrounding Poe's untimely demise have always been shrouded in mystery. Why was Poe in Baltimore to begin with? Where was he, and what happened during the five days between his documented arrival, and his reappearance and subsequent death in a hospital, delirious and alone?

One the one hand, uncovering his research through the format of a novel is a clever strategy on Pearl's part, as we would not be nearly so inclined to read the elucidation of the unfortunately paltry facts he uncovers in a more straightforward account. On the other hand, the novel itself fails to make as strong an impression as one feels the facts deserve. Perhaps because it drags on for so long, taking us through a great deal of tedious detail, filled with characters that ultimately fail to live up to their promise.

By the time we get to the labored and somewhat improbable ending, in which our primary protagonist, the fictional Quentin Clark, hears the actual details from the Frenchman, Auguste Duponte, who he at times at times both doubts and at times believes to have been the inspiration for Poe's Dupin character, ensconced in a vacant courtroom where moments before, Clark was on trial in a lawsuit designed to deprive him of his inherited property . . . (that's a sentence already worthy of the convolutions of a Faulkner, not an Edgar Allen Poe), by that time, we really don't much care, and the actual details are just as grey and uninspiring as much of the rest of the story. Duponte's version seems no more believable than that of his rival, the Baron Dupin (don't ask, you'd have to read the book).

By that I mean to say that the book, while entertaining to a degree, is ultimately disappointing. Maybe Pearl really has solved the mystery of Poe's death, but if so, the solution is so mundane as to be virtually meaningless. I doubt if any of the details will stick with me, in fact, I've already pretty much forgotten them. I guess he (the author) did the best he could with what he had. But for literary purposes, and to truly honor the memory of a fantastical writer like Poe, something considerably more dramatic is needed.

Nevertheless, the book is at least marginally recommended for Poe fanatics, and anyone else who loves a literary mystery.


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