The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl

A quest to solve the riddle of Poe's death depicts a world on the brink
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The Independent Culture

Detective stories are about answering questions, and there are some questions it is unwise to try to answer. When the young lawyer Quentin Clark becomes obsessed with the death of Edgar Allan Poe, he finds his sanity and morality questioned by his relatives and friends. Baltimore before the American Civil War is a society founded on snobbery, propriety and casual injustice; Clark's amateur fumblings threaten a house of cards.

Matthew Pearl's novel is less a murder mystery than an attempt by Clark, and his creator, to resolve the circumstances surrounding the last days of Poe. Was he an alcoholic who relapsed? Or was he a man embroiled in and poisoned by corrupt electoral politics? Clark never knew Poe except through his writings, and makes the mistake of thinking that fiction will help him to know the facts.

He tries to recruit Poe's own detective, Auguste Dupin, to solve the mystery, and travels to Paris, where he finds an embarrassment of possible Dupins - a corrupt lawyer and a burnt-out investigator, both obsessed with a long-dead woman. Both come to Baltimore, bringing political enemies who become Clark's.

As in his novel The Dante Club, Pearl is as fascinated by atmosphere as by plot. This is a book full of surprising discoveries and reversals, but also a fascinating portrait of a society closer to fracture than anyone is prepared to admit. The fog of bad faith is paralleled by the darkness where the streetlights end and by deluges that cannot wash away treachery and oppression.

You cannot have a Victorian pastiche as effective as this without the good girl/bad girl syndrome. Baron Dupin has at his side a beautiful thief, Bonjour; inevitably, Clark finds himself drawn to her when his fiancée has been persuaded by officious relatives to ditch him. If there is a weakness, it rests here: the virtuous Hattie, however spirited, has nothing to do, whereas Bonjour, with her sharp knives and sarcasm, steals every scene. Pearl's fidelity to the period means we end up irritated with Clark, who chooses as his time and its fiction require.

In the end, this is a book about Poe and his death that takes us smoothly through the evidence, theories and people. Pearl does not so much wear his research lightly as hand it over to his investigators. One of the novel's strengths is that it values intelligence, and the process of analytic thought, as much as it does the sensational moments.