Versatile Silvis (Mysticus, 1999, etc.) returns Edgar Allan Poe to his journalistic roots for another look at the real-life origin of his celebrated 1842 story “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.”
The narrator, ten-year-old August Dubbins, begins with an arresting tableau: A mother tosses her baby, then herself, out an upper window into the Hudson River. In the best Poe manner, their deaths are a red herring. For it’s not until spectators search the river for their bodies that they discover another corpse, that of shopgirl Mary Rogers. One of the first on the scene is the courtly southerner Poe, a hanger-on at the New York Mirror, who swiftly marks the boy as a likely source of eyewitness evidence. Soon enough, the pariah journalist and the harrowingly neglected child draw closer together, as Augie visits Poe’s ethereal domestic establishment—his child-wife Sissie and her devoted mother Muddy Clemm—in the wilds of Upper Manhattan and the intermittently, helplessly alcoholic writer vows to rescue him from his abusive mother. What follows, sadly, is standard-issue conspiracy-intrigue linking Mary’s pregnancy to the town’s highest social circles. Only the dullest readers will think Poe’s fortunes are rising when he is hired by wealthy Whig paladin Johnston Hobbs to vindicate his daughter’s fiancé, Lt. Charles Andrews, of complicity in Mary’s killing. The ranks of villains remain too shadowy to inspire much terror; Poe’s detective work is more dogged than ingenious; and the ceremonious prose in which the mature Augie recalls the adventure, though atmospheric and evocative, is also monochrome and humorless, sounding neither like his great mentor nor like any ten-year-old who ever lived.
Silvis’s most memorable creation is Poe himself, a god to his female relatives, a sage to his readers, a burr to literary lights like Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, and a nuisance to his harried editors.