Ten-year-old Edgar Allan Poe finds criminal doings among arrivistes and aristos in Regency England.
Taylor (The Office of the Dead, 2000, etc.) knits his considerable skills as a crime writer and as a master of historical detail into a smooth, agreeably complex solution of two mysteries in the life of the real-life Poe: the early disappearance of his actor father and Poe’s disappearance in the last days of his own life. Thomas Shield is the narrator and true heart of the story. A shell-shocked Waterloo veteran, Oxford-educated, and poor as a churchmouse, Shield finds employment as teacher at the Rev. Mr. Bransby’s small private prep school north of London. Among his pupils are the American Edgar Allan, placed there by his foster parents, and Charles Frant, only son of high-flying banker Henry Frant and his beautiful wife Sophia. The two lads, whose resemblance to each other is notable, are socially connected, and Shield is very quickly drawn into the complications of their lives with the apparent murder of Henry Frant and the brief appearance of Edgar’s dissolute and faintly menacing father David Poe. Shield is called on to identify Frant’s battered corpse, and his doubts about the identity place the teacher in the role of detective for the rest of the story. Accompanying Charlie back to London as chaperon and tutor, Shield takes a between-stairs place in the household of odious nouveau riche banker Stephen Carswall, the man who had ruined Henry Frant financially before his murder. Also in the household are Carswall’s beautiful illegitimate daughter Flora and Sophia Frant, in need of both money and protection. Profoundly attracted to both women, Shield is repulsed by Carswall, whose naked social ambitions are leading to the purchase of a baronet for the cynical Flora. When the family decamp to Carswall’s Gloucestershire estate for the Christmas holidays, they take Shield with them, so he is present for the eventual discovery of yet another corpse and the complications of Carswall’s ambitions. The amateur detective is fortunate to have the assistance of a team of straight-talking Americans.
Taylor’s creamy prose falters only in one of those mind-numbing wrap-ups that make Conan Doyle a chore.