Welcome to Baltimore, 1849. Quentin Clark, a smart young lawyer, has everything one could hope for. He has a beautiful home, a solid legal practice, and an engagement to a lifelong friend. All of this is to fall by the wayside when he is compelled to watch a funeral that has only four witnesses and no service to speak of. There are no wreaths, there is no weeping.
Imagine Quentin's disbelief to read in the paper of the death of Edgar Allan Poe, a writer for whom Quentin has the utmost passion, with whom he had begun correspondence only just prior to the writer's death, and whose demise garnered only a slight mention on the inside pages of the local paper. Further mystery develops when Quentin learns that the pitiful funeral service he witnessed was for Poe. How is it that a writer of such brilliance could be so overlooked? How can it be that an author of such outstanding works as THE RAVEN or THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE could be so reviled by his peers and critics in the ensuing obituaries that followed?
Quentin begins the search for those answers, ignoring his duties as a lawyer and as a fiance. Only when he runs into dead ends and then is threatened to leave the manner of Poe's death alone does he realize he cannot complete his investigation alone. The only one who can possibly help is the one man on whom Poe based his most illustrious and brilliant detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Traveling to France, Quentin finds two people who may or may not be the real Dupin, and each begins their own investigation into the mysterious death of Poe. Quentin wants it done for the sake of Poe's legacy. The two competing Dupins have their own reasons for undertaking the work, which could affect their futures as well as those of Quentin, Poe, and the world.
Matthew Pearl picks up where he left off with his bestseller THE DANTE CLUB, and in many ways he realizes the potential he exhibited with that work. THE POE SHADOW is an astounding piece of history mingled with fiction, and it is quite evident from the novel that Pearl has as much interest in Poe as narrator Quentin. From the very first page, Pearl grabs you with the mystery of Poe's funeral, and the unraveling mystery of the writer's death is richly detailed and explained, wrapped and woven into Quentin's crusade to save Poe's rightful place in history at the risk to his own future.
The two Dupins who vie for Quentin's trust leave the reader see-sawing between them. Who is true? Just as we begin to find comfort in one, the other finds a way to place distrust in that decision. Pearl does a magnificent job of earning our trust and then destroying it, keeping the shadow of the events constantly in motion and keeping us from seeing the end prematurely. It is not a mystery solved in the first half of the novel, and it is a testament to Pearl's ability to lure the reader with story and with historical fact, doling it out just enough to keep us hungry for more until the final revelations that come in the ending pages.
The research done for this novel was exemplary, shown by the ease with which the reader is made comfortable in the 1800s locales and lifestyles. The cities, the language, and the mannerisms of society are all in place and do not feel out of the ordinary, nor do they feel forced. The novel flows and it is an easy ride to undertake. For those who know Poe and the mysteries that have followed in his wake, much will be familiar. However, Pearl injects some life into the age-old questions with some new facts discovered while he researched the book.
Edgar Allan Poe has long been associated and credited as the man who created the detective story with his works involving the masterful C. Auguste Dupin. Over the course of time, the quality of his work gained the acceptance and the recognition it deserved. Matthew Pearl takes up the torch admirably in an effort to tip his hat to his subject. Ultimately, readers are left with an astoundingly well-devised mystery that even the great Poe would have loved.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on January 18, 2011