The still-unexplained death of Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49) is the subject of the Cambridge, Mass., author’s follow-up to his popular debut historical thriller, The Dante Club (2003).
Its premise is irresistible: an investigation by young Baltimore attorney Quentin Clark into the tragic fate of his recently deceased favorite author—to whom, furthermore, Quentin had written, precipitating a friendly correspondence heightened by Clark’s impassioned “commitment to represent . . . [the] interests” of the perpetually impecunious, wrathful and doubtless alcoholic genius. Refusing to believe his idol had drunk himself to death, Quentin abandons his eternally patient fiancée, judgmental law partner and his career, traveling to Paris to seek the freelance problem-solver known to be the model for Poe’s ratiocinative genius Auguste Dupin (solver of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” among other fictional enigmas). Quentin is repeatedly interrogated, sidetracked, physically assaulted and misled as he eventually encounters both a retired amateur sleuth (Auguste Duponte) uninterested in Poe’s story and “special constable for the English” Baron Claude Dupin, who’s rather too eager to prove that he is “the real Dupin.” All three men journey to Baltimore, where the game of proving how Poe died (or was murdered) is afoot—or nearly so, in a sluggish narrative that staggers under the weight of Pearl’s considerable (and just barely effectively dramatized) researches. Interesting use is made of Poe’s stories and poems, and Pearl whets our interest with tantalizing clues (the whereabouts of the woman Poe was to have taken as his second wife; the man’s last name he uttered on his deathbed; the reason he remained in Baltimore rather than completing a planned journey from Virginia to New York).
A few surprises aside, however, too little of substance happens, and Pearl’s virtually bloodless characters never engage our interest. A disappointing successor to Pearl’s terrific first novel.