Matthew Pearl specializes in a somewhat particular sub-genre of fiction, namely historical fiction. His first book, The Dante Club, was about Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s Inferno to English, which is historical fact. He adds, though, a series of gruesome murders seemingly based upon the Inferno which Longfellow and his fellow poets must muster up the courage to solve. It was a very enjoyable book, fast paced and a bit violent.
Pearl’s newest offering is The Poe Shadow. Again, it is an actual historical fact, the death of Edgar Allan Poe, that is the catalyst for the story. And the events of the novel, centering on Quentin Clark, are entirely fictional. Or, are they? This novel is more than a fictional account of what might have happened to Poe in Baltimore in 1849. It is Pearl’s hypothesis on what happened, developed after much careful research and the unearthing of new facts connected to Poe’s death. That he chooses to present his theory in a novel rather than a journal seems to be due more to his desire to use fiction to present his theory than any real weakness in what he has uncovered.
Quentin, a lawyer in Baltimore, is somewhat obsessed with Poe and his writings. Upon Poe’s death, which is very mysterious, Quentin takes it upon himself, with no small cost to his career and reputation, to uncover what happened to Poe. This takes him to Paris, where he finds the supposed inspirations for one of Poe’s most famous characters, the detective C. Auguste Dupin. Much adventure follows as Quentin and the detective return to Baltimore and try to uncover the truth behind Poe’s death before a charlatan beats them to it, or, worse yet, reveals some fictional account of Poe’s death that is believed more than the truth.
There are many subtle twists and turns that occur as Quentin discovers small facts about what happened to Poe during the mysterious 5 days between his first setting foot in Baltimore and his death. The one unfortunate aspect of the novel, for me, was that the “truth” is revealed at the end of the novel in a very expository way. The final story behind Poe’s death is related by the detective, Auguste Duponte, in a relatively dry account. That the hypothesis had to be directly narrated to Quentin, and thus the reader, in this way was somewhat anti-climactic.
However, overall, the book was very interesting and the theory on Poe’s death proposed by Pearl makes good sense, mostly for the fact that it is not sensationalist at all. All of the mysterious facts surrounding Poe’s death are attributed to relatively minor occurances, each of which, individually, are nothing extraordinary. It is the accumulation of such details that lead to the mystery surrounding Poe’s demise.