Matthew Pearl's The Poe Shadow.

Literature that thrills.
May 24 2006 6:08 AM

Purloined Poe

Fact is invading fiction.

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Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

These are good times for armchair sleuths. In his recently published A Death in Belmont, Sebastian Junger suggests adding a new name to the Boston Strangler's known victims. In her 2002 exposé, Portrait of a Killer, Patricia Cornwell announced that she had pierced the identity of London's most notorious serial murderer, Jack the Ripper. Ripperologists remain unconvinced, but that didn't stop me from flying down to Washington (the cherry blossoms were in bloom) to get a closer look at Cornwell's clinching evidence: the seedy paintings of prostitutes by her prime suspect, the British artist Walter Sickert. And now comes Matthew Pearl, the crime writer whom Dan Brown—fresh from fending off plagiarism charges stemming from his use of nonfiction sources—blurbs as "the new shining star of literary fiction." In The Poe Shadow, Pearl claims to have cleared up once and for all the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Edgar Allan Poe, the grandfather of all armchair sleuths.  

A graduate of Harvard College and the Yale Law School, Pearl has a knack for the clever premise, as well as sufficient legal training to know his way around detectives and courthouses. In his deft debut novel, The Dante Club (2003), set in Boston just after the Civil War, the police are forced to rely on a group of Harvard-affiliated amateurs—and Dante aficionados—to track down a serial killer whose murders are based on the tortures in Dante's Inferno, which Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is busy translating. Pearl isn't the first crime writer to dabble in Dante; the great Dorothy Sayers produced a serviceable translation of the Divine Comedy. Riding on the coattails of the extremely successful The Dante Club, the Modern Library reprinted Longfellow's charmingly dated version, with Pearl's introduction, but without instructions for decoding lines like these: "Upon this journey, whence thou givest him vaunt, Things did he hear, which the occasion were Both of his victor and the papal mantle."

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In The Dante Club, Pearl wrote about a real club—whose members included such heavily bearded worthies as Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell, as well as Longfellow—but invented the murders. In his new novel, there may or may not have been a crime, since the known facts surrounding Poe's death remain a puzzle for scholars. At the time of his death, Poe was traveling from Richmond to Philadelphia in order to raise money for a new magazine. Poe left Richmond in the early morning of Sept. 27, 1849, and as his biographer Kenneth Silverman observes, "No reliable evidence exists about what happened to or within Poe between that time and October 3, a week later, when a printer named Joseph Walker saw him at Gunner's Hall, a Baltimore tavern, strangely dressed and semiconscious." Poe was taken to a hospital where, according to the doctor who took charge of him, he addressed "spectral and imaginary objects on the walls." He died on Oct. 7 and was buried the next day, with eight mourners in attendance for a ceremony that lasted three minutes.

Into this missing week, Pearl has let his imagination wander. His narrator, a fictitious Baltimore attorney and Poe enthusiast named Quentin Clark, is determined to clear Poe's name of the charge of drunkenness and dissolution. Convinced that Poe was the victim of an accident or foul play on the night of his death, Clark travels to Paris to enlist the help of the enigmatic (and equally fictitious) C. Auguste Duponte, whom he takes for the real-life model for Poe's own amateur detective Dupin, hero of "The Purloined Letter" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Holed up in Clark's Usher-like mansion, they employ "ratiocination"—reason guided by imagination—to solve the case. 

Pearl summons an unlikely cast of fringe characters, some historically based, some not, along the way. Poe's unsympathetic Baltimore relatives are convincing in Pearl's account, but the Parisian cohort—a false baron who is a master of disguise, and a lady-assassin named "Bonjour" with a scar across her face—seem to have strayed from a Dumas novel. After many chance encounters and much Poe-esque scurrying through dark streets, Clark and Duponte are ready to reveal their solution, a well-researched one, Pearl wants us to know. In a "Historical Note" appended to The Poe Shadow, Pearl brags of having pursued "original research through numerous resources, including archives and depositories in eight different states." Pearl's best find is a poem by a Philadelphia poet named Marguerite St. Leon Loud, who had hired Poe to edit her volume for publication. The poem seems to describe Poe's funeral. I'm not sure that Pearl and his stand-in Quentin Clark have achieved their stated goal of "the unraveling of the entire mystery of Poe," but their theory of Poe's death is both ingenious and plausible. The book is meant to be read quickly; otherwise the reader may stumble on archaisms like "To say sooth" and anachronisms like "This is not about me." While less richly imagined and plotted than The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow will presumably be a best seller as well.

The popularity of books like Pearl's itself requires explanation. The English have always had a higher tolerance for donnish mysteries in the Michael Innes and Iain Pears mode. American readers have tended to go for darker, nastier tales—Chandler and James M. Cain, or James Ellroy—with less intellectual payoff. But that may be changing. Jonathan Harr's hugely successful The Lost Painting, about a missing Caravaggio, reads like a real-life Pears teaser, joining blockbuster intellectual puzzlers like The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four. The Renaissance art historian Ingrid Rowland attributed the popularity of such books to our hunger for civility in a world gone awry. "The extraordinary success of such pointedly cultural thrillers indicates a longing to take the Western heritage seriously, to accord it some degree of honor rather than subject it to yet another critique," she wrote in the New Republic.

This may be true, but The Poe Shadow draws on other longings as well. After all, Poe isn't quite Raphael or Leonardo; despite his considerable reputation in France, his American status remains a bit dodgy. While Pearl's fictional attorney Quentin Clark is convinced that Poe is the greatest American writer, it's not a widely held view. And no one has suggested that the fate of our Western heritage would be less perilous if we all brushed up on "The Raven" and "The Pit and the Pendulum."

What's more striking in The Poe Shadow is the vigorous blurring of fiction and nonfiction. There was a good deal of fretting a few years back when nonfiction writers like Edmund Morris and Simon Schama (whose "historical novella" "Death of a Harvard Man" details a crime mentioned in The Dante Club) employed fictional techniques and characters. Now it is fiction that seems to be increasingly invaded by fact. Historical fiction is booming—Doctorow is back, and newer practitioners like Emily Barton are on the march—and Pearl's book on Poe, with its research in eight states, insists on its factual basis. Are we losing our faith in the power of the imagination? As the market for serious fiction declines, the question is worth asking. In a review of his own tales that Poe wrote, anonymously of course, in 1845, he praised himself for his own originality. "He appears to think it a crime to write unless he has something novel to write about." Where is Poe when we need him?

Christopher Benfey is Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke. His latest book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, about writers and artists in Gilded Age America, has just been published by the Penguin Press.

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