Edgar Allen Poe was 39 years old when he died on October 7 1849. He had traveled by train from Richmond, Virginia to Baltimore a
few days earlier, on September 28th. The writer intended to continue on to Philadelphia to finalize some business when he became ill and was discovered lying unconscious on September 28th on a wooden plank outside Ryan's saloon on Lombard St. in Baltimore.
Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital, where delirious with tremors and hallucinations, he slipped into a coma and died after four days. Baltimore lawyer Quentin Clark, an affable man with an intrinsic curiosity, has become obsessed with Poe's life and work and he will not let the case of Poe's death go unnoticed.
From the outset, Quentin is distrustful of the events surrounding his favorite author who he feels had died within his midst. Angered by the press, whom Quentin feels could have paid better tribute to the genius of the famous author, the intrepid lawyer begins to piece together the events on the days before his hero died.
The press say Poe died of "his fatal weakness," meaning drinking, yet who was a witness? And why was he left to die on the dirty floor of a rum-hole by some rough circumstance? The clues gradually pile up in a complex web of deceit: Why was Baltimore's farewell to the nation's premiere literary savoir such a tepid affair, consisting of an unceremonious ceremony, and entombment in the narrow burial yard?
Everyone is quick to rush to judgment, with Poe's life automatically deemed a regrettable failure – he had a gifted mind but he squandered his potential. Quentin thinks otherwise and he throws his impending engagement to Hattie Blum and the relationship with his partner Peter Stuart in jeopardy when he travels to Paris to enlist the talents of Auguste Duponte, the one man perhaps capable of unscrambling the mystery.
In Paris he also meets the strange Baron Dupin and the small time thief Mademoiselle Bonjour, who tries to assist him in uncovering the link between Poe's literary tales and the last days of his life. As petty masquerades plague him and haunt him, in this such "cloak and dagger business," Quentin is given a warning - someone wants to stop him enquiring into Poe's death, and as he traverses the streets of Baltimore and Paris and later back to Baltimore, he feels an increasing number of eyes upon him.
Quentin, in time, exposes a complex network of deceit that stretches from Paris to Baltimore and to the Baltimore chapter of The Sons of Temperance, even stretching all the way to the American descendents of Emperor Napoleon. Furthermore, Quentin is constantly battling with his fine place in society, constantly assuaging his dangerous restlessness.
Meticulously researched, The Poe Shadow perfectly captures this tumultuous American century where slavery is rife, suspicion of one's neighbor is prevalent, and the poor are ever oppressed. Matthew Pearl has full command of his idiom as he captures the pretensions of the upper class, while also spinning a deftly observed mystery story that encapsulates so much of Poe's literature and life.
From the sordid back alleyways and gaming parlors to the stately drawing rooms of Baltimore society's self-congratulatory movers and shakers, The Poe Shadow is an intricate and multi-faceted tale, a journey that is not only steeped in literary and historical allusion, but gives us revealing and rewarding look at a stoical young man who is totally blindsided by a course of events that move far beyond his control.