Edgar Allan Poe has been credited with creating the first detective stories that have evolved into the mystery genre as we recognize it today. Poe’s French intellectual C. Auguste Duponte foreshadows the great detective minds perfected by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the form of Sherlock Holmes and by Agatha Christie in Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.
Following the success of The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl in The Poe Shadow looks to pay homage to Poe’s genius and clear up some of the controversy and mystery surrounding the death of the American gothic writer, putting to work some of the same techniques Poe’s Duponte would have used.
Unfortunately, Pearl’s execution of his intentions fell short of his goals. Following the tradition of the Duponte stories and Doyle’s later Holmes tales, the novel is narrated not by the main detective but by a less gifted however eager mind. Quentin Clark, a wealthy Baltimore mortgage lawyer and fan of the recently deceased Poe, creates a mission for himself to clear the late writer’s name in the papers. He sets out to determine, find, and employ the inspiration for Poe’s character.
The reasons Pearl gives Clark for looking into Poe’s death are flimsy. The premise for the entire novel is weak and Pearl has too much going on; the novel cannot recover any sense of balance. Some of the subplots, especially the romantic ones, were predictable, unrealistic, and unfolded too much like a fairy tale.
Quentin, as a narrator, grows tedious early and each stage of his character’s process is more painful to read through than the last. There are some background characters that catch the reader’s attention briefly before Quentin’s voice dulls their personalities or his paranoia paints them in unnecessary suspicions. A few drop out of the novel with no warning and too many loose ends. There is one point where the action builds and the pacing seems to be picking up, but the little momentum gained is not enough to make it through the slamming on the brakes that follows in the plot. Even the final wrap-up, provided in the last few pages, is completely unsatisfactory.
The overall lesson that Poe’s Duponte (and even Holmes, Marple, and Poirot) emphasize is that rather than the overly dramatic or sensationalized, the simplest explanation is often the correct one. Pearl’s central characters come to pretty much the same conclusion as well. Considering this, it is surprising that the plot as a whole turns out to be so over complicated and dramatic. The only piece that turns out to be simple, though the explication of the processes used to arrive at the explanation are drawn out and detailed, is the explanation of Poe’s death.
Though The Dante Club managed to combine a thrilling murder mystery with the work of literary greats, The Poe Shadow missed the mark by trying to combine and capture the magic of too much of Poe’s genius. The reader didn’t have to be familiar with Dante or the Inferno to enjoy The Dante Club. The reader of The Poe Shadow needs to be well versed in Poe or must prepare for spoilers (Quentin Clark not only poorly summarizes several Poe plots, he goes so far as to give away the ‘who-dunnit’ parts of the Duponte stories).
Having taken a seminar on Dickens, I had been excited about Pearl’s latest novel, The Last Dickens, which came out in paperback a few months ago. After finishing The Poe Shadow, I think I’ll wait a while before picking it up.