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THE HUM BUG by Harold Schechter

THE HUM BUG

By Harold Schechter

Pub Date: Nov. 13th, 2001
ISBN: 0-671-04115-0
Publisher: Pocket

A killer's on the loose in mid–19th-century New York, and it’s up to a cunning showman and a gloomy scribbler to catch him.

Schechter’s first Edgar Allan Poe suspense yarn, Nevermore (1999), teamed up the gothic writer with frontiersman/politician Davy Crockett. For his second outing, the reluctant investigator finds himself making a meager living from his journalistic work, his “tales of the grotesque and arabesque” ignored by a public that embraces more sentimental fiction. Such rejection upsets him not just as an artist—and Schechter portrays him as a singularly egotistical and precious specimen of that species—but as a provident husband. Now, however, an unlikely patron appears in showman and huckster extraordinaire, P.T. Barnum, who hires Poe not only to add a dash of literary class to his publications but—on the strength of Poe’s success in the Nevermore case—to help solve a recent murder that’s being indirectly blamed on him. The dead woman, Isabel Somers, was killed in a manner reminiscent of a grisly, infamous case a few years ago that Barnum had detailed in one of the more popular wax tableaux in his museum, a display one newspaper claims has encouraged the murder. Poe goes to work, leaving nary a clue unturned or an emotion unexpressed. Schechter’s style is high fun, with Poe’s arrogantly highfalutin’ vocal gymnastics (“My soul was possessed with a vague yet intolerable anguish!”) is typical—matched only by Barnum’s shameless prolixity. Despite some evocative Alienist-style scene-setting, the actual investigation, sad to say, is a lot less involving than the outsized protagonists.

Nonetheless, a worthy addition to the famous-dead-people-as-private-investigators genre. Here, the hero is treated as a real person, not a stiff literary icon.