The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl

Fiendishly clever, startlingly bloody
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Here's a tip for any novelist with an eye on posterity: if you want to ensure posthumous interest, create a bit of blank space in your diary. Disappear for a while, and don't tell anyone where you're going. It worked for Poe.

It's not just biographers who've followed the trail. Three years ago, Andrew Taylor's novel, The American Boy, imagined a young Poe during his schooldays near London. Also out this month, Louis Bayard's The Pale Blue Eye journeys to West Point Academy in the company of a cadet named Poe. But it's Matthew Pearl who fills in the most significant of these lacunae: the five days before Edgar Allan Poe was found insensible in a tavern in Baltimore on 3 October, 1849. By the seventh, he was dead.

Quentin Clark, a dissatisfied small-town lawyer, finds himself an observer at a miserable and ill-attended interment. Only later does he discover that it was Poe's. Spurred on by this, he sets out to solve the mystery of the author's last days. To do so, he needs the help of the man he believes is the model for Poe's great detective, C Auguste Dupin: a reclusive Parisian tutor named Duponte. But is he the true model? Step forward Baron Claude Dupin, who says he is Poe's inspiration. The two claimants race towards the truth, but will either of them live to tell it?

Using established theories about Poe's death alongside original research, Pearl provides an exhaustive account of the writer's end. He borrows more than the lead character from Poe's Dupin stories. In The Mystery of Marie Roget, Poe recast a real-life crime and included near-verbatim press accounts of it. "The Purloined Letter" features two characters who are mirror-images of one another. Pearl's novel has all these, and an endless array of other Poe shadows.

Pearl's is an ambitious project: literary criticism, biography, reconstruction, reportage and fiction, all in one volume. His debut, The Dante Club, was another fiendishly clever and startlingly bloody tale. But his background as an academic tells in his prose style as well as his researches. His anxiety to reassure the reader on every plot detail, however minor, leads us down innumerable byways. Curiously, such thoroughness does not save him from some slip-ups. On page 309, Quentin is pushed aside by a fleeing female, and "there was something lost from her eyes that made me know that I would not see her again." Yet on page 311: "I had little doubt that I would see her again."

Baron Dupin is a pantomime villain, all twirling mustachios, while Quentin is barely a character at all, more a walking volume of Poe Studies. But the Baron's partner-in-crime, Bonjour (yes, it's a daft name but there's a great reason for it), more than compensates. Oh, and did I mention the subplot involving the descendants of Napoleon and the overthrow of the French Republic? Where else could you find all this and disquisitions on the slave trade, voter fraud in local elections and the workings of the US postal system? And the truth about Edgar Allan Poe's death? Well, maybe...

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