Monday, October 23, 2006

Quite a Shadow

The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl, Read by Erik Singer, Recorded Books, LLC, 2006

Following up on his first novel, The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl didn’t leave nineteenth century America at all. Perhaps in researching Longfellow, Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes there were a few small signs where his next novel would take him. At one point in the course of that first novel, the three members of the so-called Dante Club, poets who worked with and advised Longfellow on his celebrated first English translation of The Divine Comedy discuss Poe’s accusations of plagiarism and his low opinion of their work.

Pearl’s second novel backs up sixteen years to find that earlier poet and to probe the mystery that surrounded his death. What’s rather fascinating too, is that to this day there are any number of theories regarding the cause of death (most recently it was suggested he contracted rabies from a skunk, which is almost insulting as far as means of death), though no official pronouncement.

The novel opens in the fall of 1849 as our narrator, Mr. Quentin Clark, a young lawyer on the rise, while walking down the street to the post office, stumbles across a sad, lonely funeral, attended only by the minister and the four men necessary to carry the coffin. The vision strikes him, haunts him, and Clark is later shocked to discover that the dead man is Edgar Allan Poe, a writer with whom he’d corresponded by letter for a couple years. From there things spin out into a classic mystery, as our hero seeks to find out the truth behind the death of Edgar Allen Poe.

The plot builds slowly with complications at every turn — a man in the street warns him off his questioning, the police brush off Clark’s interest, Poe’s nearest relatives try to quash his interest, and when Clark sees Nelson Poe, the author’s cousin, getting into a carriage he believes he sees Virginia, Poe’s dead wife, in there with him. At every turn there are mysteries and more mysteries.

Clark’s aunt shows no more interested in his fixation either; indeed, by the book’s end, her hostility to his dredging up the past will turn malevolent, though coiled within a farce of respectability. His colleague Peter is likewise one who becomes overly incensed at Clark’s interest in Poe, becoming so angry at one stage that he pitches the hero’s edition of Poe into the fireplace. This sudden madness is matched by Clark’s diving for the book and pulling it out of the fire and holding it up in flames.

There is a kind of delusional foolishness at times to Clark’s obsession. Neglecting his law practice and his fiancée, Hattie Blum, he seems under the impression that his own life will manage itself while he pursues his demons. It is a mark to how far gone he is in this belief that he is stunned when he’s been away in France for several months that Hattie breaks their engagement.

If there’s a weakness in all of that, it’s that Clark’s developing monomania seems to move rather quickly from simple interest to all-consuming passion. Things seem to move much faster than seems likely, and there’s never a compelling reason given that spurs Clark. The intensity of his curiosity feels more somewhat thrust upon him than an outgrowth of who he is presented as. Within a year of Poe’s death, Clark is over in Paris seeking to track down Auguste Duponte, who he believes is the basis for Poe’s famous fictional detective.

Along the way, we meet the laid back Duponte, as well as the publicity-hungry and debt-ridden Baron Claude Dupin, who himself claims to be the real basis for the character. The dueling claims for this detective pedigree lead both men to visit America in order to solve the mystery of his death, the Baron publicly announcing it in the Paris papers forcing Duponte to secure voyage across the Atlantic in order to secure his claim to his reputation. The contrast between these two, Duponte a slow moving ratiocinator to Dupin’s more flashy investigations is at times amusing and their longstanding rivalry and relationship remains always a little shadowy throughout.

Upon Clark’s return to America, he discovers that Poe is on the lips and in the hands of every citizen in Baltimore, the newspapers trumpeting the mystery surrounding his death. It is the arrival of the Baron before our hero that has caused this. Upon not finding the expected general populace atwitter regarding Poe’s death, the Baron ran several ads in the papers offering a reward for information regarding his death. This prompted newspaper curiosity which spurred sales of various editions of his work.

Pearl has written a convoluted novel following the two tracks of investigation, along with the war between the two French detectives, Clark’s complicated relationship with is ex-fiancée and ex-partner (who are themselves now engaged), and providing a quite detailed (and likely factually correct guess) account of Poe’s last days. And yet it’s a novel rather different from so many, as to the fact that the narrator’s assumptions of whodunit (whodunanythingatall, practically) comes out wrong at every count, wrong in every direction. And not wrong in the way of a detective’s sidekick’s erroneous guesses. Clark isn’t even sure which original Dupin he should trust.

It’s a bit curious that such a book can be written with a character whose ignorance of what is the major story of his life is so all-consuming and yet make the narration so compelling. At one point, it even begins to seem likely that it is Clark himself who is the killer, his own doppelganger a la “William Wilson.” As he is often the only witness to events and so much of the story relies on him as spectator, one could easily believe he has become prey to fugues.

Like The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow deals with partially true events, while oddly choosing to make an already satisfied issue a crux of suspense. One of the issues of contention in that first novel is whether or not the Harvard Corporation will allow Longfellow’s translation to see the light of day (a question easily answerable to nearly any lover of American literature). This novel finds Clark trying desperately to prevent Poe from receiving a bad reputation as a deranged drunkard. We already know this is a doomed mission, doomed only until later historians began to throw skepticism like so much cold water on the received accounts. And as such, like in Dante, it is an odd choice for suspense maker, though weirdly powerful.

Erik Singer has a friendly, youthful voice, the kind that you immediately warm to, and as such, he wins your support almost immediately. He loses it after a certain period of time for making a variety of minor characters voices a very peculiar kind of nasally fast-talking surfer dude. It’s hard to gain back, though the text he has to work with makes every effort imaginable to give him that chance. It’s mostly a success.

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