Immortality was a persistent preoccupation in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, so he might have enjoyed his belated resurrection this spring in the pages of two new mysteries. Poe, who created the literary detective in his short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," is now cast as a detective's assistant and the murder victim, respectively.
The novels divvy up Poe's life pretty neatly: "The Pale Blue Eye" by Louis Bayard features a little-known aspect of Poe's youth, his aborted career as a West Point cadet; while Matthew Pearl's "The Poe Shadow" focuses on the "missing week" that culminated in Poe's strange death. While an attempt to solve the "murder" of Edgar Allan Poe is the more irresistible premise, "The Pale Blue Eye" offers the most pleasure to both mystery readers and fans of Poe.
Anyone who has read "Mr. Timothy," which not only let Tiny Tim grow up but cast him as an unlikely action hero, won't be surprised at Bayard's feats of literary prestidigitation here. Retired police detective Gus Landor has been summoned to the gates of West Point to investigate the death and mutilation of a cadet. Enlisting Cadet Poe as his inside source, the two find evidence of a Satanic cult operating on the grounds. During their investigations, Poe falls in love with the rather odd sister of a fellow cadet. (Of course, Poe was rather odd himself: "Nothing about him was quite right," Landor observes about his twitchy charge.) Bayard scatters seeds of Poe's short stories and poems throughout the novel, culminating in a grisly set piece that out-Goths "The Fall of the House of Usher." But just when a reader's eyes start rolling, Bayard's ending brilliantly upends the entire novel. Doubt Bayard's plotting abilities? Quoth the reviewer: "Nevermore."
Matthew Pearl's "The Dante Club," a runaway bestseller in 2003, had Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell investigating a series of murders that mimicked the punishments in "The Inferno." Here, Pearl has devoted considerable time to researching the final week of Poe's life, unearthing some new evidence in the process. What's known is that the cash-strapped Poe was traveling from Richmond to a lucrative editing assignment. He never arrived. Days later, he was found, apparently drunk, in a Baltimore tavern and taken to a hospital, where he subsequently died. In "The Poe Shadow," a young lawyer named Quentin Clark is obsessed with solving the mystery and clearing Poe's reputation. To do so, he travels to France to find the real-life model for Poe's detective, C. Auguste Dupin. This should all be terrific fun, but Clark himself is a real drip. (Had Poe lived today, he would have asked for a restraining order against him.) And the overlong plot becomes ponderous as Pearl tries to wedge in all of his scholarship. Grades: 'Blue Eye': B+, 'Shadow': B–