Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl

Excellent language and the narrator's "voice" really draws you in, but any interest is killed off by the boring plot. Nothing happens for vast stretches of this book. Zzzzz.

I finally got the end of this book, and it wasn't easy. Matthew Pearl has taught literature at Harvard and Emerson College, and it shows. I found myself re-reading phrases or paragraphs, simply because I really enjoyed the "voice" of the narrator. It's just a pity that his plotting is not as good as his use of language.

Quentin Clark is a handsome, wealthy, young attorney living in Baltimore in the 1850s. He has a stereotypical faithful best friend, a lovely-yet-chaste fiancee and he lives in a big house inherited from his loving parents. So far, so vanilla. Quentin is also a bit of an Edgar Allen Poe fan and starts corresponding with the poet, in the hope of one day meeting his much-admired hero.

However, in respectable society Poe is considered a bit of a dodgy poet/writer, penniless and an embarassment to his relatives. So when he turns up dead in mysterious circumstances, the newspapers of the day tut-tut and say I told you so.

Our narrator Quentin witnesses Poe's funeral (although he does not realise who it is at the time) and this triggers an obsession into finding out what actually happened during Poe's last days. Quentin, outraged by the insulting obituaries printed in the newpapers and other journals, is determined to clear Poe's good name. He soon becomes obsessed with the idea that Poe's character Dupin (a kind of French Sherlock Holmes) is based on a real person. And who else is better to solve the mystery of Poe's last days than the great Dupin himself?

OK, that's main thrust of the book. There are complications along the way - for example Quentin comes to the conclusion that the logician Auguste Duponte is the real Dupin, but another man, the flashy Baron Dupin, comes forward to claim that he, in fact, is Poe's fictional Dupin.

One of my problems with this book is that the plot is not that interesting. Is it Duponte or Baron Dupin, who cares? And since their detective work consists of reading newspapers and speaking to a succession of stuffy relatives and politicians, it was hardly exciting stuff. The most interesting character is Bonjour, Baron Dupin's murderous wife; Quentin himself comes across as being rather weak and easily led. In his obsession, Quentin neglects the other aspects of his life eg he abandons his job, neglects his family's investments and seems to forget about his fiancee. Frankly, I thought he needed a good kick up the backside.

There's some attempt to make the story more interesting by throwing in some suspicious French villains, a side-plot regarding the American Bonapartes and their attempts to claim rights of succession in France. I thought this was the weakest part of the book actually.

My other problem is that no-one really knows what happened to E.A. Poe, so it's mostly conjecture anyway. When I'm reading books like this, in the back of my mind, I'm always thinking - did that really happen, or did that the Author filling in the blanks? And it's never satisfying when you get to the end because unless you are a time-traveller or someone unearths some long-forgotten testimony, we will never know. OK, OK, I should know what to expect from a book like this, but damn, it seems I never learn.

According to the historical note at the end of the book, Edgar Allen Poe's death is one of the great gaps in literary history and there are original discoveries worked into the book that have never been published before. Whatever. I'm just glad it's over.

(Read more reviews here)

I'm reading Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors next. I haven't watched the movie, but the book is supposed to be good.

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