Book Review: Matthew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow

Author Daniel Pearl Recreates the Murky Tale of the Death of Writer Edgar Allan Poe

Photo: Creative Commons

Shadow of The Raven

September 26 or 27th, 1849: The American writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe boards a steamer leaving Richmond, Virginia for his home in New York, planning a stop in Philadelphia to edit a collection of poetry he hopes will finance his proposed literary magazine The Stylus. He never arrives.

On October 3rd, Poe is found in a debilitated state outside a polling station in Baltimore. He dies four days later in a hospital bed. The coverage of Poe’s death reflects indifference to a man who would become one of the most admired writers in American Literature,

“Edgar Allan Poe is dead,” wrote the Daily Tribune on October 9th, the day after Poe’s death. “We have not learned the circumstances of his death. It was sudden, and from the fact that it occurred in Baltimore, it is to be presumed that he was on his return to New York. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.”

The period between Poe’s departure from Virginia to the moment he was found in front of Ryan’s hotel remain a mystery to this day, the theories about his death fall short of certainty through lack of concrete proof.

It is this mystery that Matthew Pearl explores in his newest work of literary fiction, The Poe Shadow, casting a new light on the whereabouts of Poe during the last days of his life through the efforts of Quentin Hobson Clark, a young Baltimorean attorney who makes it his quest to resolve the circumstances of Poe’s death. The aspiring attorney, himself an affectionate reader of Poe, had a close, yet brief relationship with the writer, conversing through letters and offering legal support to Poe’s never published magazine. The death of Poe, and even more the reaction to his passing, leaves Clark aghast.

“I could not watch this desecration. I wanted to look away, yet at the same time I found myself thirsting to know everything that had been written, however unjust. (Or – think of the peculiarities of the human mind – the more unjust it was, the more I needed to see it, and the more unfair, the more essential it seemed to me!)”

Clark’s quest does not remain a solitary effort though, as Pearl chooses to introduce another character much closer to Poe’s literary characters in the form of Auguste Duponte, whom Clark initially believes to be Poe’s model for C. Auguste Dupin, the master detective in the trilogy of ratiocination, whose immaculate intellect in regard to deductive reasoning and powers of observation would eventually inspire Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create his renowned Sherlock Holmes.

However, Clark’s fervor juxtaposed with Duponte’s motivational anemia leads him into the hands of yet another model for Poe’s detective, the Baron Claude Dupin. Baron Dupin though turns adversary, putting the duo’s quest for the truth against the Baron Dupin’s intention to establish an alternative truth that would satisfy the growing interest of the public — an interest he has helped to stir through maneuvers that unfortunately are ultimately unconvincing.

Although the plot leaves the reader dissatisfied, relying on convenient coincidences and naïve situations, it is Pearl’s effort to resolve the actual mystery of Poe’s death that is the true interest of the novel. The theory of Poe’s final days proffered by Duponte in the final pages of the book, a result of painstaking research by the author, makes it a worthwhile read.

Pearl sleuthed in six states, and unearthed details never before publicized to explain Poe’s unexpected stay in Baltimore and the circumstances of his death. He uncovers remarkable information, such as attributing the poem The Stranger’s Doom written by the poet Marguerite St. Leon Loud, whom Poe was supposed to visit in Philadelphia, as relating to him. All newspaper accounts featured in the novel are authentic, a detail that in the final pages lends weight to Pearl’s theory on Poe’s final days.

Perhaps the most fascinating discovery was the existence of a letter awaiting Poe in the Philadelphia post office in the last weeks of his life, addressed to the pseudonym E.S.F. Grey, a misspelling of the pseudonym E.S.T. Grey Esquire used by the writer to correspond with his mother-in-law. Although now lost, this letter was probably the last ever written to Poe, and its discovery, if still in existence, would be sensational.

As a story, The Poe Shadow falls short of Pearl’s debut The Dante Club. Pearl’s attempt to bring the flat-footed Clark-Duponte cooperation to life with chase scenes through the rain-drenched streets of Baltimore and clandestine surveillance actions is not overly successful, that together with Pearl’s inability to reproduce Poe’s style of Dark Romanticism are perhaps the book’s chief failings.

In Poe’s writing, the presence of the unknown and inexplicable haunts the whole of his text, presenting the reader from the start with an unfamiliar, desolate setting that retains a feeling of unease and dismay. The individual is immediately plunged into a domain of the weird that is governed by unstated laws whose characteristics deviate from our world only slightly, but enough to avoid logical explanation, provoking a sense of an implicit threat to the character that is not entirely within human grasp. The Fall of the House of Usher and A Descent  Into the Maelstrom illustrate these elements of Poe’s writing perfectly.

Unfortunately, this style seems implausible in the nineteenth century Baltimore described by Pearl simply because it is too common and everyday, no matter how hard he tries to transform it into a near-apocalyptic wasteland near the end of the book.

Yet, Pearl does succeed in doubling Poe in one aspect. The character of Auguste Duponte is a worthy heir to Auguste Dupin, incorporating the traits of Poe’s character and his genius with sharp precision that gives the reader the feeling that it is indeed C. Auguste Dupin coming back to life here, after his last appearance in The Purloined Letter over 150 years ago.

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