I loved The Dante Club (reviewed in July). It was intelligent, and pure geeky fun, and I had a lovely time picking my way among the corpses in 19th century Boston. So I jumped at the chance to take The Poe Shadow on paperbackswap.com.
I should preface this by admitting I haven’t read much Poe. I have a couple of collections; I’ve just … never gotten around to it. But I’m familiar with his most famous poems, I knew who C. Auguste Dupin was, and I knew a little about Poe’s life and reputation – about the fact that though he was often condemned for being a drunkard he was not, and in fact had a very low tolerance for alcohol. And about his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, and his despair at her early death. But the only work I’ve read about him before this was some dreadful thing I can’t recall the name of and won’t look up which cast him and P.T. Barnum as detectives… This had to be light years better.
And it was. Especially in the beginning I had as much fun as I did with The Dante Club. The story is told in the first person by Quentin Clark, an attorney in Baltimore in 1849 who has long enjoyed reading Poe. “Enjoyed” is actually an understatement; Clark’s interest in the poet and his work begins to sound like obsession, and that becomes full-blown as the book proceeds – but it begins with his defiance of his family’s opinion that Poe is a dangerous influence. He reads every scrap that he can find, and enters into a correspondence with Poe, even offering his legal services pro bono if they are needed to defend the magazine Poe dreams of starting.
Upon Poe’s death, Clark is distressed by the tone of newspaper articles and essays. Most of them paint him, obliquely or outright, as a drunk, and most take the tone that he didn’t contribute much to the universe and won’t much be missed. Outraged, Clark begins a campaign to try to gain retractions and corrections, to try to rehabilitate Poe’s reputation, which leads by various paths to his quest to find the real man who was Poe’s inspiration for Dupin, the genius of detection. Surely the real Dupin can discover the truth about Poe’s death and clear his name.
The quest leads Clark to Paris, which is in an upheaval of government; it has not been so long since the French Revolution, and now the republic is beginning to give way to a new empire under the Bonapartes. It’s dangerous, but the obsession is strong, and Clark soon has two possible Dupins on his hands: the attorney Baron Dupin, whom Clark had written earlier, and Duponte, who is the new lead contender. Baron Dupin is a charlatan and showman, and Clark decides he can’t be the one – especially as he learns more about Duponte, an investigator who fits the descriptions in Poe’s stories perfectly. He works to bring the latter back to Baltimore, and to complicate matters the former comes too, along with his wife (a beautiful assassin) and a matched set of men who appear to be hunting him for reasons unknown.
It’s not a spoiler to state that Clark winds up accused of a murder; that’s given on the first page of the book. And I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that that’s about when the book started to lose me. Halfway through the book, not the first page. Clark’s need to exonerate Poe grows to a state in which he can do nothing else; he loses his practice, and, through her family, his fiancee, and shortly is in danger of losing the home he inherited from his parents as his aunt brings a case against him stating he has lost his sanity. Between simply being a little fed up with a man who would sacrifice everything without even a thought – and not even so much the fact of the sacrifice as the pain it caused his family and beloved Hattie – and behaving in a thoroughly unreasonable manner in pursuit of a noble goal; and being more than a little fed up with the prospects of an International Conspiracy (I hate International Conspiracy as Tolkien despised allegory: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence”) – the book started to lose me, and never really got me back. I finished it – but it was a long slog. I read a review that referred to Clark as an unreliable narrator: quite right. While he doesn’t necessarily intentionally lie to the reader, he makes wild assumptions, changes his mind, and becomes somewhat unhinged. That reviewer had a time of it with the mid-19th century language; I didn’t find that nearly as difficult as I often do (it’s usually harder to read pseudo-19th-century than the real thing, I find). That was the least of my problems with the book.
On the whole, I’m glad I read it. I learned a good deal – for one thing, I’m going to try very hard to avoid referring to Poe as “Edgar Allan Poe”, as he hated it, with good reason. For another, it took the taste of that other Poe/Barnum book out of my mouth; there’s a certain irony in this book rehabilitating the name of Poe for me as Clark fought to do in Baltimore. And I’m going to read Poe, soon. But I don’t think this will come up for a reread very soon. It felt disjointed in places, and as though Pearl lost the reins for a while and was a passenger in a runaway carriage: as if Pearl’s research into Poe and his death created in him much the same condition as he describes in Clark. Method writing? Maybe. The Poe Shadow both explained and created allure about Poe, and raised Poe in my estimation while, sadly, lowering Pearl a notch or two. But this didn’t kill my respect; on the contrary. I did love Dante; I do respect the tremendous amount of work that went into making The Poe Shadow - and his third, latest book is The Last Dickens. I look forward to it.