Onyx reviews: The Poe Shadow by
Matthew Pearl has an affinity for fictionalizing 19th century literary events
using real people as characters. His first book, The Dante Club, featured a
group of Bostonian literati-including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver
Wendell Holmes-translating Dante's work for an American audience against the
backdrop of murders that seem derived from the very material they are making
In The Poe Shadow, Pearl returns to 1849 and the aftermath of Edgar Allan Poe's
mysterious death. The protagonist, however, is not a historical figure. Instead,
Pearl uses Baltimore attorney Quentin Clark as a stand-in for himself. As he
reveals in the "Historical Note" among the end matter, Pearl has
devoted significant effort to ferreting out previously unknown details
surrounding Poe's final days that he incorporated into the story.
Quentin is young, affluent, self-absorbed and tenacious to a fault. He became
interested in Poe and his works while the poet and short story writer was still
alive. The two exchanged infrequent letters. Quentin doesn't understand why the
establishment isn't more supportive of the author, and pledges his financial
assistance for a new periodical Poe intends to start. He is devastated to hear
of Poe's untimely death, and dismayed to learn that only four people attended
his funeral, a ceremony that he witnessed without realizing what it was. Many
questions remain unanswered-unasked, even-and Quentin is determined that Poe's
death and legacy aren't dismissed.
The police aren't interested, the media don't think Poe will be much missed, and
Quentin's law partner thinks he is imperiling his promising career, his recent
engagement and his family's reputation through this ill-advised pursuit. A
stranger on the street warns him to stop the investigation, which only spurs him
on with renewed zeal.
Quentin believes that Poe modeled C. Auguste Dupin, literature's first cerebral
detective, featured in classic tales like "The Murders in the Rue
Morgue," after a real person so he sets off for Paris-inexplicably and
uncharacteristically abandoning his career and his fiancée-to enlist the
person's assistance in exploring Poe's death. However, he ends up with two
potential candidates, each of who undertakes an investigation for personal
reasons, becoming rivals and adversaries.
The period Baltimore setting is well drawn and convincingly executed-the book is
suffused with a claustrophobic, rain-soaked ambiance. Unfortunately, the mystery
concerning which of Quentin's two candidates is the real brilliant detective and
which is the poseur dilutes the story's focus. Though Pearl deftly shifts
readers' allegiances from one to the other and back again, this seems like a
monumental diversion. Poe's fascinating literature and checkered life should be
fodder for interesting fiction, but The Poe Shadow is lackluster and belabored.
The story's sole source of narrative suspense comes from a messy subplot
involving the unstable political situation in France. Pearl-through
Quentin-becomes so enrapt in his quest to explain every esoteric enigma
surrounding Poe's death that he overlooks the fact that reality doesn't always
make for interesting fiction.
Readers who persist to the end-it's a long, dreary trek that many will likely
abandon-are "rewarded" with a lengthy scene of exposition during an
artificially prolonged recess from an equally tedious trial. The fruits of
Pearl's/Dupin's investigation are laid out in all their gory detail, like the
finale of an Agatha Christie novel. Every loophole is plugged, every mysterious
detail resolved, but it feels like a letdown. A recent theory that Poe could
have been a victim of rabies-anything that didn't slavishly adhere to what
probably happened-might have provided a more exciting tale.
Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2007. All rights reserved.