Twice Upon a Midnight Dreary

(From "The Poe Shadow")

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Reviewed by Jasper Fforde
Sunday, June 11, 2006

THE PALE BLUE EYE

A Novel

By Louis Bayard

HarperCollins. 412 pp. $24.95

THE POE SHADOW

A Novel

By Matthew Pearl

Random House. 370 pp. $24.95

These two new novels about Edgar Allan Poe's curious life both come draped with the necessary -- nay mandatory -- mystery, but their approaches could not be more different. In The Pale Blue Eye , by Louis Bayard, Poe is an impassioned genius with the world ahead of him; in The Poe Shadow , by Matthew Pearl, he is the dishonored dead.

The Pale Blue Eye invites us to a dull, dark and soundless day in the winter of 1830 and the Hudson Valley, where retired New York City detective Gus Landor is nursing the double trauma of physical illness and personal tragedy. At nearby West Point a cadet has been found hanged in a tell-tale manner, his heart removed from his body. Fearing closure of the school, the administration asks Landor to investigate. To assist him in this endeavor Gus calls upon a 20-year-old cadet named Edgar Allan Poe, who is at the military academy in a vain attempt to secure his legacy from his foster father. More murder and intrigue quickly follow, and Landor and Poe establish a curious alliance as they try to unravel the mystery.

There are, I feel, easier books to write, and it is to Bayard's huge credit that he carries off not only the cold and miserable locale with an atmospheric darkness worthy of his illustrious subject, but also that Poe himself walks and talks so convincingly throughout the pages of this novel. We know that Poe led a life of professional and personal disappointments coupled with the sure knowledge of his own genius, and Bayard has expertly placed the young Poe among the other characters here: his arrogance toward those who command the academy, his awkwardness and passion with the daughter of a military surgeon and his strained relationship with Landor, whom he wants to see as the father figure he never possessed.

But despite all this hugely accomplished and well-observed character study, the detective story that is meant to act as a framework for the book just doesn't match up to the style and quality of the prose. I'm something of a traditionalist when it comes to detective novels. I like to be offered red herrings and clues until given a false and then real resolution that makes me think admiringly, "Ah, I should have seen that coming!"

In The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club , we roll on to the year 1849. Poe, after a short lifetime of hard work, tragedy, disappointment and grudging acceptance of his literary worth, is buried in a Baltimore cemetery with just four mourners in attendance. Controversial during his lifetime because of his macabre stories and his penchant for accusing fellow writers of all manner of sins, this upstart crow is damned by the newspapers eager to write anything negative about the mysterious death of the mystery writer.

Here Pearl steps into the fray and gives us the young Quentin Clark, a Baltimore attorney of independent means who sets out to uncover the truth behind the death of his favorite author. Abandoning a partnership in a law firm and throwing a sound society engagement into jeopardy, he journeys to Paris to seek the services of the one man capable of answering the question of Poe's untimely death: the real-life model for C. Auguste Dupin, the brilliant detective who thrilled Clark -- and the world -- with his astounding feats of "ratiocination" in cases such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

Clark soon finds himself with not one but two eccentric Frenchmen who lay claim to being the model for the fictional detective. To compound the problem further, they are both soon back in Baltimore attempting to seek out the truth, while behind them the wind of international conspiracy gathers pace.

The Poe Shadow belongs firmly in the Dupin/Sherlock mold of cerebral armchair investigations revolving around detailed study of newspapers and the welcome return of inverted clue logic -- not why something is , but why it isn't . This retro-ratiocination breathes refreshing life into the genre by returning to first principles. Beneath the cloak of this well-paced detective story and its understated wit, however, is a scholarly piece of work, a meticulously researched and detailed discussion of the events surrounding Poe's death. In fact, one wonders where reality ends and fiction begins, a question that Pearl dutifully discusses in the afterword. As a period piece the book is gloriously and sumptuously detailed, and if I ever get to Baltimore in the mid-19th century, I daresay I shall not be surprised by what I find. ยท

Jasper Fforde is the author of "The Eyre Affair." His sixth novel, "The Fourth Bear," will be published in July.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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