Permit me to begin my review with a confession. (Ha! A clever literary conceit.) I read The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl, after having read his later book, The Last Dickens. I believe this minor action on my part may explain why I favor the latter work in preference to the former, an opinion that seems contrary to those of my fellow readers. It is the key to unlocking this mystery.
But first a summation of the plot: Young Baltimore barrister Quentin Clark, unhappy in his practice and stifled by the expectations of polite society, takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of the passing of his favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe. In pursuit of his quest, which borders on obsession if not madness and takes him from Baltimore to Paris and back, Quentin imperils his livelihood, his relationships, his good name and his freedom. Will our young hero prevail?
The Poe Shadow shares many of the strengths of The Last Dickens, particularly Pearl’s recreation of nineteenth century America. (1850s Baltimore in the former; 1870s Boston and London in the latter.) Pearl has clearly done his homework; he is at his best and recreating the historical settings of his novels, both geographically and socially, as well as their ambiance. Indeed, Pearl accomplishes this more successfully in The Poe Shadow than he does in The Last Dickens. Reading The Poe Shadow, I could “see” nineteenth century Baltimore and its people, something that few books have evoked for me since my days as a history major in college. This is truly great stuff.
Where the novels differ most is in Pearl’s treatment of his characters, and this is The Poe Shadow’s flaw. Quentin, as befits the hero of a mystery who is not the character to solve that mystery, is something of a blank slate: He is Watson, not Holmes; his purpose is to serve as an audience to which the solution of the mystery can be explained, thus enlightening the reader, too. Pearl’s attempts to flesh out Quentin’s personality–his indifference to the expectations of society and his obsession with Poe–work against Pearl’s aims, though; Quentin, who in pursuit of the truth of Poe’s death is really “seeking himself,” comes off as merely whiny and crazed–not attractive traits in a main character. Likewise, the Frenchman Auguste Duponte, the investigator upon whom Poe’s celebrated character, Dupin, may or may not be based, seeks truth using his brilliance, a quality so in abundance it permits him to act as offensive and uncouth. He is also, despite his intellect (or perhaps because of it), something of a bore. Really, when Duponte begins to go on at length near the end of the book–when a reader might expect to be turning the pages quickly, anxious to solve the riddle–I couldn’t help but be annoyed. These are not easy characters to enjoy.
That, then, is the crux of the problem I alluded to earlier in my review: In The Last Dickens, the leads were far better drawn than are Quentin and Duponte. The hero of The Last Dickens, James Osgood, is himself the “detective” of the story, which serves two purposes: It eliminates the need for a “raticinator”/sidekick paradigm such as that evident between Duponte and Quentin; and it permits the story to move forward more quickly. Yes, there is something to be said for an author taking his or her time to create atmosphere, which, I’ve already said, Pearl does splendidly, but, frankly, there were times when The Poe Shadow just dragged, a sensation I never had while reading The Last Dickens.
Perhaps it is uncharitable of me to review one of an author’s books by comparing it to one of his later works. (Perhaps I have read too much of Pearl lately, and it is reflected in my syntax and my usage of terms such as “uncharitable.”) But the damage had already been done! How was I to know that The Poe Shadow would be overshadowed (heh) by The Last Dickens? My recommendation: If you have a high tolerance for this sort of thing, by all means, read The Poe Shadow. You will enjoy it. If you’re not a consumer of mysteries and/or historical fiction, though, steer clear of Quentin and Duponte in favor of The Last Dickens.
(Note: I wrote this review on August 24, 2011, and originally posted it on LibraryThing and Goodreads. Its cross-posting here is part of an effort to consolidate all of my reviews in one place.)