A few years ago, Matthew Pearl's novel The Dante Club carved out a unique place for itself on the various best-seller lists. In it Pearl combined original historical research into the work and lives of leading nineteenth-century American writers — Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and James Russell Lowell — with a captivating murder mystery that kept the reader turning the pages even as it re-created the period of its action. It was a wonderful idea, but it seemed to me like something that could be done only once.

Obviously I wasn't thinking clearly enough about the rich mysteries of nineteenth-century American literature! In his recent The Poe Shadow, Pearl has turned his considerable intelligence and imagination to the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe. There are several stories of Poe's death, none of which is overly exact. What has made it into the cultural imagination — probably because it mirrors the haunting darkness of Poe's tales — is that he died drunk in Baltimore in 1849, when no one thought he should be anywhere close to that city. Of course it's a story that fits a bit too nicely with our received notion about the self-destructive nature of the artist, but the gaps in the tale have always been captivating.

Matthew Pearl didn't accept the notion, and he wanted to fill in the gaps. He has studied much of the work that has been done and combed the archives for documents from the period that might shed light on the issue. But he has also created a character, a smart young lawyer obsessed — much as a character from a tale by E. A. Poe would be — with finding the true story behind the death of the author. That young man, Quentin Clark, determines that he cannot solve the mystery of the death without the help of the French thinker who was the basis for Poe's most famous character — the detective C. Auguste Dupin, model for Sherlock Holmes and grandfather of all subsequent literary gumshoes. Clark's obsession makes him leave his law practice, his fiancée, and his city and takes him to Paris, where he decides that one of two candidates for Poe's Dupin is the right one, and he brings the man back to Baltimore. The second candidate comes too, and thus begins a wild complication that brings in French and American politics, detailed descriptions of both Baltimore and Paris, and a wild intrigue of uncertain loyalties.

Matthew Pearl has chosen to tell his nineteenth-century stories in a nineteenth-century style. Much of the description and dialogue in The Poe Shadow is written in the same diction and syntax Poe himself might have chosen. To check out that supposition, I went back and reread — probably for the first time in thirty years — Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." It did verify my impression and reminded me of how vivid, smart, and frightening those stories are. I have to think that Matthew Pearl would be pleased that his book took a reader back to the original.

Matthew Pearl reads from The Poe Shadow at the downtown Borders on Tuesday, July 17.

[Review published July 2007]