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Onyx reviews: The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl

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 available.

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.

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