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Book Review: The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl (2/5)

11 Dec

I read Pearl’s book The Dante Club in high school and re-read it for a book club a while back. His name was in my head when I stumbled across this title at a used book sale. I decided to pick it up for my 1800s book in the When Are You Reading? Challenge, thinking it would be a quick read. Boy, was I wrong. I had plenty of book club interruptions, but they weren’t exactly unwelcome.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl

Summary from Goodreads:

Baltimore, 1849. The body of Edgar Allan Poe has been buried in an unmarked grave. The public, the press, and even Poe’s own family and friends accept the conclusion that Poe was a second-rate writer who met a disgraceful end as a drunkard. Everyone, in fact, seems to believe this except a young Baltimore lawyer named Quentin Clark, an ardent admirer who puts his own career and reputation at risk in a passionate crusade to salvage Poe’s.

As Quentin explores the puzzling circumstances of Poe’s demise, he discovers that the writer’s last days are riddled with unanswered questions the police are possibly willfully ignoring. Just when Poe’s death seems destined to remain a mystery, and forever sealing his ignominy, inspiration strikes Quentin–in the form of Poe’s own stories. The young attorney realizes that he must find the one person who can solve the strange case of Poe’s death: the real-life model for Poe’s brilliant fictional detective character, C. Auguste Dupin, the hero of ingenious tales of crime and detection.

In short order, Quentin finds himself enmeshed in sinister machinations involving political agents, a female assassin, the corrupt Baltimore slave trade, and the lost secrets of Poe’s final hours. With his own future hanging in the balance, Quentin Clark must turn master investigator himself to unchain his now imperiled fate from that of Poe’s.

The book started off interesting enough. But it took a turn for me very quickly. The premise is interesting, but the construct that thrusts Clark into the middle of the mystery was too much for me. Why Quentin would risk his job, fiancée, and home to find out the mystery of Poe’s death was beyond me. It seemed too much of a stretch and it made me dislike Quentin. When you don’t like your main character, the rest of the book is hard to like.

Hattie was the only character who seemed reasonable to me. She was in love with Quentin but couldn’t deal with his behavior and changes. I felt the same way. The fact that she was kept from him and distanced herself made sense to me and were what I would have done in a similar situation. It would be like someone who once received a letter from Tupac deciding he was going to quit his job and travel abroad to find out if he was really dead or not. It didn’t seem feasible. I would probably break up with that person, too.

I didn’t like any of the characters. Dupin and Dupont were supposed to be amusing, I saw that, but they annoyed me. Quentin came off as an aimless idiot. I pitied Bonjour because she seemed trapped in a bad marriage. There wasn’t a single one I liked.

The actions of the characters were illogical to me and things I never would have done. The idea that the answer to a man’s death was so important and that it could be made important to an entire city would never have occurred to me. Quentin’s behavior seems completely absurd.

Matthew Pearl
Image via the author’s website

There wasn’t a part of this book I particularly enjoyed. The plot seemed very slow and the style bothered me a lot. I think it could have easily been 100 pages shorter and the ending could have been more satisfying. I’m almost talking myself into a lower rating, honestly.

Quentin seems redeemed at the end. Seeking the truth and using logic helped him recover his life and find closure for Poe, a man he’d never met. I didn’t see any of this as necessary as it could have been avoided, but that’s beside the point. Following logic and truth instead of making up fantastical stories worked for Quentin where it failed Dupin. In the end, the best story wasn’t right.

Writer’s Takeaway: Pacing was a big problem for me in this novel. It was too slow and the length isn’t justified for the content. I did appreciate that there was some original research in the book, but this doesn’t seem the be the appropriate medium for that. I think an article would have been better. I think Pearl was hoping to strike gold with another literary titan but feel flat this time.

This book was disappointing to me and one I won’t be recommending or re-reading. Two out of Five Stars.

This book fulfilled the 1800s time period for my When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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Review: The Poe Shadow, Matthew Pearl | Books, Brains and Beer