Two actual murders and a third fictional one collide with the dark world of Edgar Allen Poe in this uneven historical mystery by Rose (Kill Kill Faster Faster, 1997, etc.).
New York City chief constable Jacob Hays pursues the cases with the assistance of Olga, his sweet, spinsterish daughter. The novel opens with the brutal killing, in July 1841, of Mary Cecilia Rogers, a beautiful tobacco-shop employee whose death results in a media frenzy that consumes the entire city. Among the most famous individuals fascinated by the lovely victim is brooding poet Poe, consumed by illness, depression and poverty. Mary’s slayer is unknown, but aspiring writer and Poe admirer John Colt (brother to firearms magnate Samuel) confesses to the second murder, claiming he killed his printer in self-defense. By contrast, gang leader Tommy Coleman, who occupies a cell near Colt on death row, continues to insist he didn’t fatally beat his wife and small daughter. Colt watches from his cell window as workmen construct the gallows and Hays sorts through the evidence. The murder investigations play out against the New York literary scene with a cast that overwhelms the cluttered story line. The characters become more and more entwined. Olga, it turns out, is a fan of Poe, who was once infatuated with Mary. Poe writes a story in installments that promises to name Mary’s killer, but a surprise wedding and a well-timed fire change everything. Prodigious detail and period speech overwhelm this slow-moving tale, while the constant shifting between present and past tense is disconcerting.
A twisty second half livens things up, but most readers will likely not make it that far.