In his novel The Poe Shadow, Matthew Pearl examines the circumstances of Edgar Allan Poe’s actual demise in 1849. Pearl mingles real people in Poe’s life with fictional characters (you can’t tell the difference without looking at the books’ endnotes). Pearl’s chief invention is Quentin Clark, a lawyer of Poe’s generation who’s eager to pump up the writer’s then-low reputation. Clark becomes obsessed with the scant details of Poe in his final hours: He journeyed to Philadelphia in hopes of raising funds for a literary magazine, but within days was dead in a Baltimore tavern. In addition to Clark, Pearl creates two amusing gents, Auguste Duponte and Baron Dupin, who Clark thinks may have been the models for Auguste Dupin. They alternately help and compete with Clark to unravel the details of what may have been Poe’s premature death.
Like Louis Bayard’s The Pale Blue Eye, another good new novel about Poe, The Poe Shadow cannot quite overcome the fact that it is, at bottom, a stunt — an emulation of the style of the real person being fictionalized. But both books are still ingenious works with a rich knowledge of Poe’s life. If you read both, you’ll also probably want to pull down that copy of Poe short stories and once again feel the delicious dread of ”The Masque of the Red Death” or ”The Pit and the Pendulum.”