Friday, November 03, 2006

The Great Books series...

I'm currently reading the non-fiction book The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and The Invention of Murder, by Daniel Stashower. It's a very readable tome examining the sensational murder of Mary Rogers and its aftermath. After the crime remained unsolved, Poe eventually wrote a story (with names and settings very lightly altered) in which his pre-existing sleuth Auguste Dupin--literature’s very first detective character--solved the crime, using Poe's own formulated solution to the real life mystery.

This is a very good effort, briefer than many such (300 pages), and written well enough that the pages fly by. Stashower manages to cover and integrate such topics as the murder; its attendant cast; Poe; the then at best nascent criminal justice system; the period's often-scurrilous popular press, and other topics without overwhelming the reader. A very nice job.

This remains my favorite passage so far: The following morning, a local farmer named James McShane came across [a prostrate fellow] sprawled facedown, sobbing in the wet grass. The smell of alcohol hung in the air. To McShane, this could mean only one thing. "My dear man," he said, "are you a Frenchman?"

There's been a trend lately to use real life historical figures as protagonists in mystery series. As the inventor of the detective story, Poe naturally ranks among these. Most notably, he has been the subject of several suitably baroque mystery novels by Harold Schechter, which have affectionate fun with Poe's overwrought and dramatic personality. These books tend to join Poe up with some other historical figure, such as Davey Crockett or Kit Carson or, most recently, a young Louisa May Alcott.

Buffs will also want to check out the recent and rather more serious The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard, which features Poe helping solve a string of murders while a military cadet. (An even younger Poe, meanwhile, is a less instrumental character in Andrew Taylor's An Unpardonable Crime.) The adult Poe, meanwhile, searches out a killer in Randall Silvis' Disquiet Heart, itself a follow-up to Silvis' earlier Poe mystery, On Night's Shore.

All of these books are worth a look for mystery and/or Poe fans.


At 7:06 AM, Anonymous twitterpate said...

Thanks, Ken! I saw Beautiful Cigar Girl in a Borders recently, and was thinking it might be a good present for my mom, who loves both mysteries and history. However, I hadn't heard anything about it. Nice to hear a good recommendation.


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