And so tonight I have finished reading Matthew Pearl’s new book, “The Poe Shadow“. An enjoyable read, very much the same in tone and flavor as his previous (and first) novel, “The Dante Club“. For those who are not familiar, Pearl writes historical fiction set in the world of great literary figures. The Dante Club was a terrific serial murder mystery set in 1865 Boston. The sleuths involved were poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, and poet James Russell Lowell – plus a host of other characters, both real and imagined, pulled from the same time and location. The Dante Club was a favorite of mine in 2004, and I was looking forward to Pearl’s next endeavor.
This time out, Pearl has written a novel about a young lawyer trying to discover how his literary hero and sometimes-pen-pal Edgar Allen Poe met his end. The story begins in 1849 Baltimore, at the sparsely-attended funeral of Poe, and takes place over the following two years. This one definitely grew on me the further into it I got. For the first 100 or so pages, I was mostly just annoyed with the protagonist, Quentin Clark. In The Dante Club, all of the principal characters are pretty much geniuses. In this one, I felt that Clark was pretty much a moron.
As the novel progresses, my feelings about him changed somewhat, and I began to look upon poor Clark as sort of a Dr. Watson figure. After all, what is Holmes without Watson? And Clark’s naive nature does make him a natural target for exposition, so necessary in a pastiche novel of this sort. Unlike Watson, however, Clark is just not a very sympathetic character. As the novel concludes with a (sort of) fight for Clark’s (financial) life, I was actually hoping he’d lose. I didn’t feel he deserved either the money or the girl. What a twit. I don’t know if this characterization was intentional on Pearl’s part or not, but through most of the book, I kept saying to myself, “Well, if I was there, I would’ve done such-and-such instead of what this idiot is doing”, etc.
However, as in the previous novel, characterization is not Pearl’s strong suit. Pearl’s real talents, in my opinion, lie in creating a believable fictional world around real-life famous events and people. In that, he succeeds brilliantly. His two novels to date remind me a great deal of Caleb Carr‘s first two novels (although Carr is much better at characterization). However, unlike Carr, Pearl seems to have broken out of the one-trick pony mode while still remaining true to his strengths. While I feel The Dante Club was a better work overall, The Poe Shadow is a fun read for those who like period pieces. If you’re a fan of Edgar Allen Poe (or of Sherlock Holmes), you’ll enjoy this novel.