At the age of 40, Edgar Allan Poe was found dying in Baltimore and wearing another man's clothes. He spent his final days repeatedly calling for someone named "Reynolds." Nobody knows what killed him, and the traditional explanation of alcoholism dates back to a possibly unreliable Poe acquaintance with a sideline in temperance crusading. Thus, the life of the writer who virtually invented the mystery genre ended in a mystery, one that novelist Matthew Pearl sets out to solve in The Poe Shadow.
Pearl crossed American literature and the whodunit with his first novel, The Dante Club, which turned Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and friends into amateur detectives. This time, he introduces Poe-admiring lawyer Quentin Clark, who sets out to solve Poe's death even though no one else sees any mystery. Realizing he's in over his head, Clark seeks out Poe's real-life model for detective Auguste Dupin, finding two men who might fit the bill: self-aggrandizing lawyer Baron Claude Dupin, and semi-recluse Auguste Duponte, who has tremendous powers of ratiocination. When both end up in Baltimore—only one as Clark's ally—the Poe mystery turns into a competition.
Another competition would have to take place outside the text; readers who spot all of Pearl's Poe references should get some kind of prize. Doppelgängers, uncomfortable encounters in tight spaces, vermin, and descents into delirium litter the book. So do elements of later genre fiction: Clark tends to get knocked out and wake up with a new set of exposition-revealing characters every couple of chapters, and a sexy female assassin plays a major part. Like The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow is a highbrow page-turner that might benefit from a few more pretensions. Pearl's research brings pre-war Baltimore to life, and the two would-be Dupins enliven the book with every appearance. But while Pearl clearly knows his Poe, he never connects his novel to the author's themes, and his bland protagonist practically screams for Paul Walker to play him in the movie role. And anyone reading because of the publisher's note promising—shades of Dan Brown—that the book will uncover the facts of Poe's death can just skip to the last chapter, although they probably wouldn't mind what lies between.