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BOOK REVIEW

A Pearl of a mystery behind Poe's death

Life may be stranger than fiction, but Cambridge author Matthew Pearl is adept at portraying the mystery in both. In his best-selling debut, ``The Dante Club," Pearl took a real-life club of 19th-century literary luminaries and presented them with a series of gruesome murders, inspired by the crimes and punishments of Dante's ``Inferno." Now, in his second outing, he tackles a mystery that has long puzzled literary historians: the odd events surrounding the death of Edgar Allan Poe.

The facts, though clear, are sparse. Poe died in Baltimore in 1849 at the age of 40 . The macabre poet and author had lived through tragedy (the death of his young wife), penury, and a serious drinking problem. But, by some accounts, right before his death he was pulling himself together. He had taken an oath of temperance and was on his way to a new job. Then he went missing for several days. When he was found in a tavern, delirious and apparently drunk, he was rushed to a hospital, where he died.

To many, these facts suggest a fatal fall off the wagon. But to Pearl's fictional protagonist, a sensitive young lawyer named Quentin Hobson Clark, such an explanation is inconceivable. In Pearl's creation, Clark is a huge fan of Poe's work, although his genteel family disapproves of the writer's morbid subject matter. Clark has also been retained in a professional capacity by the writer to help with a new magazine, and Clark sees himself as still linked, legally and morally, to the project despite the author's demise. His faith in Poe is such that he can't imagine the writer self-destructing. And so, after witnessing Poe's sad, small funeral, he sets out to discover the truth about Poe's death, and to clear the author's name.

The choice of Poe as a subject is ingenious. Poe is usually hailed as the creator of the mystery novel, because of the invention of the character the Chevalier Auguste Dupin , who solves crimes in ``The Murders in the Rue Morgue" through the process of ``ratiocination," the rational re-imagining of the crime. In ``The Poe Shadow," Clark believes that just such a process can unravel the truth about the author's death. He also believes that the fictional detective is based on a real Frenchman, and sets out to Europe to identify and recruit the legendary sleuth. While in Europe, Clark finds two candidates for the model of Poe's hero, as well as other assorted rogues, several of whom follow him back to Baltimore. The result not only disturbs his family, his engagement to the extremely patient Hattie, and his law practice, it comes close to taking his life before he, using Poe's methods, figures out what really happened.

Like its predecessor, this novel not only sets itself in an earlier time, it adopts the literary style of its subject . In ``The Dante Club," that meant the relaxed, slightly wordier tone of an Emerson or a Longfellow. In ``The Poe Shadow," Pearl evokes his absent hero with longer sentences, often twisted into internal dialogues full of the kind of obsessive asides that lace Poe's work .

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