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The Poe Shadow: 06/30/08
My final review for June is The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl, a book I bought last year because I liked the cover and the title. It's the same superficial reason I used for Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann and for the most part, my intuition paid off for both.
Edgar Allen Poe showed up unexpected and in a confused state to the Washington College Hospital in Baltimore. He died there on October 3, 1849. Before his death he called out for a person named Reynolds and a letter was sent to a Dr. Snodgrass on Poe's behalf asking for help. Poe was given a simple burial and only managed to achieve recognition as a great American writer after his death. Those are the facts and the starting point of The Poe Shadow.
Matthew Pearl creates a fictional überfan, Quentin Hobson Clark, who happens on Poe's burial and feels compelled to solve the mystery behind the writer's death. He puts his own life on hold to track down all of the leads no matter how tenuous. He even goes to France with the idea of finding the man behind Poe's fictional detective, Dupin.
For the most part I enjoyed Pearl's odd mixture of fiction and historical fact but things go awry in the last third of the book. The book starts off so focused on the facts of Poe's life and death that as the plot snowball rolls towards near pure fiction the book seems to lose direction and credibility. The book falls into many of the same traps as The Seven-per-cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer.
I went from enjoying a historical fiction mystery to wishing the darn thing would end. I stopped counting possible reasons behind Poe's death at after the third rehashing of the last days of his life because it was too late in the game for an homage to Roshomon.
My over all impression of the book is still one of enjoyment but it needed tighter editing in the last 100 pages.