For my last book club meeting, the book discussed was The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl. As usual, I put off reading it until about a week and a half before we were to meet. I was sorry to have done so, since I would have liked to have read Mr. Pearl’s other two books (The Dante Club and The Last Dickens) before we met.
The Poe Shadow is a work of historical fiction, a genre I very much appreciate due to the research done to give credibility to the story. Our book club leader is a literature professor and his college has a program called Book-in-Common. This program sponsors many events dealing with the book chosen for that year, including movie screenings, historical and other discussions, an essay and short story contest, author presentations and signings, and an author workshop. Not being associated with this college, I am very happy to have read the book and excited to have the opportunity to attend some of the events.
I was intrigued with The Poe Shadow from the beginning. The book is told from the point of view of a young man, Quentin Hobson Clark, who happens to witness a sparsely attended funeral one afternoon. Young Quentin is a lawyer whose own parents had met an untimely death months before the somewhat known author Edgar Allan Poe’s unfortunate demise and sad farewell service. Quentin had read Poe’s work and was trying to support Poe’s efforts to start his own literary journal. However, Poe was residing in Richmond, Virginia, and when Quentin found out Poe died in Baltimore, and that the funeral he observed was Poe’s, he became obsessed with how Poe might have died and why he was in Baltimore. What disturbed Quentin more was the bad press Poe was receiving about his problems and how there was little good press about what a great writer Poe seemed to have been.
This obsession leads Quentin to alienate his foster brother, Peter, also his law partner in the firm that Quentin’s father left them to run, as well as his lady friend he has known since he was a boy, Hattie Blum. Eventually, Quentin takes leave of the law firm, Peter, and Hattie to go to Paris to track down the real person that Poe’s character, C. Auguste Dupin from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” was modeled after to help him solve the mystery of Poe’s death. This gentleman, Duponte, and some other characters from Paris return with Quentin to Baltimore to determine the truth about Poe’s death.
My favorite character in the book is the woman named Bonjour who came to the States to assist her friend, the “Baron” Dupin, based on a real person, and another candidate for Poe’s model of the Dupin from his stories. Bonjour is street smart, self sufficient, and beautiful. Her name is Bonjour due to her skills as a thief in Paris. She would go into rich people’s houses and if she encountered someone, she would immediately say “Bonjour!” in greeting and carry on as if she was supposed to be there. She also knew how to use a knife.
One thing about reading this book of historical fiction was that I did find myself having to reread parts of the book to remember what was going on because there were so many characters involved and so many associations between people that I could not easily remember. Of course, one of the reasons I do like historical fiction is guessing which characters were real people and which were not. A laptop comes in handy.
Another problem I had with this particular book is the font used in the 2007 Random House paperback. I thought it was horrible. The letters get really thin and I found this particular font very hard to read, especially late at night in bad light! Hopefully, the original hardback had a more readable font. I think font choice is one of the more important aspects of book publishing that is taken for granted.
The Poe Shadow has many more positives than negatives, that is for sure. I like Mr. Pearl’s writing style. He is informative and humorous. I really liked Quentin Hobson Clark and was rooting for him to solve the mystery, despite the obstacles he kept encountering from his friends and his family, much less the people he engaged to help him solve the mystery. I don’t know if Mr. Pearl outlines or storyboards or what, but he did a tremendous amount of work and research on this mystery. I enjoyed his historical notes section, as well as a reader’s guide at the end. The reader’s guide has questions for Mr. Pearl, discussion questions and special topics about the book, more notes on Poe’s death, and also contains a secret chapter not included in the text of the book. After going to http://www.matthewpearl.com/, I found there were a few more chapters not included that I was able to read.
My own history of reading Poe began in the seventh grade with “The Cask of Amontillado” followed by “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Even at that age, a reader can see how wonderful and creative a writer Poe was and how well he knew human nature. I have read many of his other stories but now want to do some serious rereading, especially of the murder mysteries involving C. Auguste Dupin and his sleuthing skills. In high school I remember buying the album by the Alan Parsons Project and loved hearing aspects of Poe’s works set to music.