In the Shadows of the Greats II #cbr4

“Codes and symmetries are for those who think too much of thinking.”

In college I had to take one literature course to fulfill a pesky general education requirement and I meandered through a bunch before I finally landed in a Tolstoy class where we had to read War and Peace and Anna Karenina in one semester. Yeah, I keep it real. One of the classes I dropped was Introduction to Narrative course that I hated from day one because I had already read most of the works in high school. I wanted a class in which I would be exposed to new works! Yeah, I keep it real. The only thing I remember about the class was a small group discussion of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. I remember saying to the teacher that the whole story was a drug-induced metaphor and exclaiming “Why does this need to be discussed?!” Yeah, I was a bit of a brat.

So, I approached The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl’s second book with about that much knowledge (and concern) for Poe. I read his works in school, but never felt the need to care much. After reading this book, I would like to return to Poe’s Dupin stories. I almost wish I had just read the Dupin stories instead.

Our protagonist Quentin Clark comes from a respectable Baltimore family. After seeing Poe’s sparsely attended funeral, he throws away his legal practice and his fiancee to search for answers as to what killed Edgar Allen Poe. For some inexplicable reason he believes that he needs to find the inspiration for the character Dupin, a detective in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. He goes to Paris and brings back to Charm City a couple of Dupin-abees and a few random baddies. He then runs amok through Baltimore, freeing slaves, shocking polite society, and vacillating from one hero to the next.

I’m sorry if the above description doesn’t give you much clue to its contents. To be honest I finished this book wondering what the heck I had just read. My 18-year old self would have probably exclaimed “It’s about opium addition!” but the hubris of youth has left me. And maybe that is the point. The above quote is from a character who shares some likeness with the real Dupin (although he is most definitely not the real Dupin…maybe). His point is that we tend to look for the most fabulous explanations when the evidence is right in front of us (consider the orangutang in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”). Throughout the book Clark is obsessed with solving the mystery of Poe’s death and in the process becomes fixated upon two potential hero figures who can, he thinks, make all clear. In the end the explanation is given and it is a simple and obvious explanation, but the whole escapade surrounding it is unbelievable.

And that for me is the fault of the book. The history is clear, the research is evident, but I can’t say that the story seems believable. Clark never resonates as a real person (although I have met people this indecisive before) and the back story seems implausible. I tried hard to like this, but I just couldn’t.

In the Shadows of the Greats #cbr4

Oh Cannonball Read I haven’t been keeping up with you. I’ve barely been able to read these two months. I finished The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl a while back and just finished The Poe Shadow today. Pearl’s The Last Dickens was one of my favorites of 2011, and I was able to hear him speak on our campus in March, so I decided to give these two a go. I loved The Dante Club. The Poe Shadow, discussed in the next post, was not a fave

Both are mystery novels at their hearts dressed up in Literature. The Dante Club follows four literary friends, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and J.T. Fields, who with the assistance of a detective named Nicholas Rey try to solve murders that echo the descriptions in Dante’s Inferno. Because they are assisting Longfellow with his translation of the Inferno, they are very aware of how the murders match up to Dante’s depictions of hell.

On the Goodreads page I found it humorous how many people complained about the grisliness of the murders when 1) It is a murder mystery. Patricia Cornwell and her ilk get much worse, and 2) It is hell that is being depicted.

If you get squeamish over a few maggots in your mystery, this book is not for you. Overall the murders themselves were depicted well especially considering Pearl was trying to make imitations of Dante’s hell into believable murders.

The characters are the strongest part of the book. The story can be slow at time, but I was drawn in by the individual stories of the four men, particularly Oliver Wendell Holmes. His character has a vulnerability that is endearing. By the end I found myself caring if he died or not. It was also fun to see more of J. T. Fields (who makes an appearance in The Last Dickens). Longfellow is the only character who remains a bit aloof, but this may have been Pearl’s intention. I can only imagine that the one ultra famous character would be difficult to make flesh and blood.

This was definitely one of my favorite books so far in 2012. If you like mysteries with a twist of history, this is a great one to pick up.