Matthew Pearl, whose debut novel The Dante Club, seen in many an airport travel station book section, surprised me as an enjoyable and creative read. When writing a book of historical fiction like this one, it is hard to stay clear of comparison to Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code which is, let’s say, umm, misleading and not taken seriously at all as a source of history or as a work of literature. Pearl’s first novel found it’s self lumped in with the genre that Brown is famous for, he even has a Brown sound byte on the cover, seemingly to get people to draw this association. This has to do with audience and marketing assuming, correctly for the most part, that people who read The Davinci Code would also like this other book with the same initials (TDC) while academics would write it off as crap if they took notice of it at all.
Its plot was sort of ludicrous; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and a team of Harvard poets/scholars go about solving a case of a serial killer who uses the Inferno as his inspiration in doing the deeds. It wasn’t a serious work of art, no, but it was clever enough to keep me reading and as far as it went into perhaps the greatest work of literature of all time, The Divine Comedy (another TDC title), it wasn’t at least wrong. There are even some analyses I found insightful with regards to Dante’s work.
Pearl’s follow up, The Poe Shadow, which attempted a similar endeavor involving a fictional amateur sleuth trying to solve the mysterious death of Edgar Allen Poe, however, is pre-Poe-sterous. The reader is supposed to care about Poe and his demise as Quinton Clark, the hapless narrator who cares way too much about his literary hero, but in the end we aren’t Poe obsessed and take on the role of Peter, his adopted brother—don’t ask—recommending that he get his life together and give up on this fruitless endeavor.
With DFW’s tragic end earlier this month, I have to admit it is tempting to fixate on the writer whose words bring you joy like no other and you live in anticipation of getting to read new ones. But when the author dies, you are left with the body of work that they left and that is all you are ever going to get. Thus you end up obsessing on what is there and, as Pearl’s novel illustrates, what is not.
The book claims to provide definitive answers to the questions about what happened to Poe in his final days with recently uncovered evidence “never before published,” but the evidence Pearl provides through his mouthpiece Clark is rather dubious and therefore not definitive. If you are looking for a nice, easy, fun read in this mystery, you are surely to come away with less than this book claims to answer. Go with something by Paul Auster if existential mysteries are your bag and Don DeLillo, Mark Costello, or Phillip Roth if you are more interested in alternate versions/accounts of history.