The American Boy by Andrew Taylor

A gothic tale of mystery and imagination
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The Independent Culture

History furnishes us with odd glimpses of famous figures set down in unlikely locations. Rimbaud's brief employment in Scarborough seems wildly improbable but is impeccable fact. Van Gogh's sojourn in Brixton recently provided the theme for an acclaimed West End play.

The American boy of Andrew Taylor's novel is another flamboyant genius, young Edgar Allan Poe, attending a school in Stoke Newington while living with English foster-parents. This episode has sparked Taylor's imagination. He has created his own Gothic world, featuring a highly interesting narrator: the penniless young teacher Thomas Shield, drawn into a complex plot when he takes up a post at the school.

Shield is sent to accompany Poe Junior, an unnervingly cool customer, and his friend Charlie Frant, on their visit to a satisfyingly creepy country house. Here the nervous teacher falls desperately in love with Frant's mother. When she becomes a widow, he is more smitten than ever.

The plot thickens: a dreadfully battered body is found, there is a mysterious codicil to a will, and an inheritance at stake. The hero is a man of natural sensibility, forced by circumstances to accept abuse from employers and contemplate the loss of the woman he loves because of his social inferiority. Hovering on the fringes of the story is a louche character who may or may not be the missing father of young Edgar. Further strange deaths follow.

In the depths of the country, and amid the pleasures of town, the schoolmaster and his charges are surrounded by threats and fears. London is a place of brutality and filth, but it quickens the pulse and stirs the emotions. Shield undergoes the quintessential Poe torment of nearly being buried alive.

The main elements are traditional 19th-century structures, as explored by Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Yet Taylor's book is not pastiche; he does not fall into the trap of trying to write like a Victorian author. Through Shield's narrative, he explores areas of feeling formerly forbidden, sensitivities and sexual feelings that Dickens and Collins could not commit to print, while building a solid world of coals, carriages and smelly sick-rooms. In this respect, he knocks spots off Michel Faber's Victorian epic, with its scatological obsessions, and creates an atmosphere close to Sarah Waters' Fingersmith in the convincing depiction of a sadistic underworld.

Poe's presence is slight, yet essential. He acts as "the still point around which the whole business revolved". Admirers will find interest in his imagined English nurturing, with themes such as ruined monasteries and pirates' treasure which later surfaced in Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and the shivery pleasures of ghost stories told late around the fire.

The schoolboy of Stoke Newington grew up to create the detective Dupin, forerunner of Sherlock Homes. Michael Dibdin has observed that Poe forged two classic elements of the genre: the detective's deductions in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", and the portrait of the insane in "The Tell-Tale Heart". Taylor's deeply absorbing and beautifully-written book is a fitting tribute to the founding father of crime fiction. And any schoolteachers bemoaning their lot should think themselves lucky not to have a genius in the classroom.

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