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Wednesday, March 7, 2007 05:17 pm

Praise for Poe and Dante mysteries undeserved

Matthew Pearl could have used an editor

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The Poe Shadow By Matthew Pearl (Random House, 2006, 384 pages, $24.95)
Untitled Document I do not like thee, Doctor Pearl
The reason why is not mere churl
But you’re so smart — and hence my qu’rrel —

Well, leaving the nursery verse, seeing as how I can’t find an appropriate final rhyme, your books, Dr. Pearl, just ought to be better than they are.
Last summer I read the well-reviewed The Dante Club, wrote my own reaction, more about me than the book. Decided to give his next literary sleuthing, The Poe Shadow, a try and got so bored that I began skimming, then skipping, a chunk here, a chunk there — no problem in missing anything, it moved so ponderously. I did read the ending and historical note. It’s not as good as The Dante Club, partly because Poe isn’t Dante and the narrator isn’t the famous Cambridge poet/detectives, partly because it’s too long, and mainly because you never come to care about the narrator, or anybody in the book, even poor maligned Edgar Allan Poe. Also, it’s told in the literary style of 1850, which Trollope, who lived then and included every detail, makes interesting, but — at least to me — Pearl doesn’t. So what’s The Poe Shadow? A lawyer develops a mania to discover how and why Poe died, convinced that he wasn’t a drunk in the      gutter. The book follows every winding alleyway, tedious conversation, and inner ratiocination of that quest. The Dante book has murders    à la Alighieri, and Holmes, Lowell, Longfellow are the characters and detectives. You come to know these real poets a little as they pursue the villain and are shocked at the death of Longfellow’s wife — her clothes catch fire — and touched by his tender love for his bereft little daughters, Alice, Edith, and laughing Allegra. Did I miss the tenderness in the Poe story? I appeal to you, dear reader, to engage me in discussion of what makes these books worth the reviews they’ve received. Meanwhile, so as not to waste it, here’s my aforementioned nonreview:

just finished reading the dante club
I’ve studied dante with charlie at uis
read virgil in the original ditto holmes
lowell longfellow those first two have
springfield streets named after them
plus whittier who somehow didn’t
make the cut maybe he didn’t know
enough dante I’m pretty well versed
in christian theology lived in cambridge
crossed and recrossed harvard yard
even went to a lecture by tillich once
but ended up making grocery lists
have had considerable secondhand
experience with mental illness
so lots was going for me in this
book which the nytimes raves is
sparkling with erudition but as a novel
well its erudite and brilliant recent
harvard ph.d. needs a better editor
why didn’t anybody on his long list
of credits get him to squash out
a hundred pages or more it’d be
less tedious don’t omit any of the
horrific dante-esque murders though
they’ll turn your guts to gravy
maybe I should try writing briefer
myself but it’s hard to stop when you
know everything about everything

Jacqueline Jackson, books and poetry editor of Illinois Times, is professor emerita of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
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