Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Poe reprise ...

... this is just out in paperback, I see, so I thought I's post the review of it we ran, since it seems tio have otherwise disappeared:

The Beautiful Cigar Girl
Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder
By Daniel Stashower
Dutton. 326 pp. $25.95
"The ingenious are always fanciful," Edgar Allan Poe proclaimed, "and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic. " Fascinated with deductive thinking, Poe wrote "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in 1841, introducing readers to the brilliant, logical and reclusive detective C. Auguste Dupin, who enjoyed "the infinity of mental excitement" generated by his powers of observation.
Although he had written a masterpiece - a milestone in the genre of crime fiction - Poe understood the story's limitations. "Where is the ingenuity in unraveling a web," he asked, "which you yourself have woven for the express purpose of unraveling? " So, a year later, he gave himself a more challenging assignment: get Dupin to discover the murderer of real-life victim Mary Rogers before the New York City police solved the crime.
Well-crafted and suspenseful, Daniel Stashower's The Beautiful Cigar Girl recounts the lurid coverage of the crime by New York newspapers, which circulated rumors that Mary Rogers was alive and rushed to judge Joseph Morse, an engraver with muttonchop whiskers who beat his wife and was seen arguing with a young woman who looked like Mary. Parallel chapters describe a depressed, disputatious, dissolute but daring Poe as he (and Dupin) raced to trump reporters, cops and prosecutors with the factually fictional story "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt. " As the third installment of the tale went to press, Stashower reveals, investigators announced a break in the case. Rogers, they now believed, had died after a botched abortion at Nick Moore's Tavern, not far from Weehawken, N.J. And the perpetrator(s) had made it look as if she had been raped and strangled.
Stashower shows how Poe struggled to incorporate these developments into "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" without contradicting Dupin's already published analysis of the evidence. After a dazzling demonstration that the crime had been committed by a single individual and not a gang, the detective speculated that a naval officer was implicated in the murder. Marie (and Mary) had disappeared briefly three years before her death - and then returned to work at the tobacco emporium. The villain had, in all likelihood, seduced her, gone off to sea, and then returned to reclaim her. In dressing the victim after her death, he had used a sailor's knot to fasten her bonnet under her chin. Poe ended the story by alluding to but not identifying a clue that Dupin used to trace and apprehend the killer.
In an Agatha Christie-ish epilogue, Stashower rounds up the usual suspects - and points an accusing finger at each of them. John Anderson, the proprietor of the emporium where Mary had worked, he suggests, may have impregnated her - and then paid Poe to write "Marie Rogêt" to divert attention from him. Daniel Payne, Mary's fiance, who later committed suicide, may have killed her when she broke off the engagement after a successful abortion. Payne had an airtight alibi, but perhaps the murder did not take place until two days later. Perhaps Poe had inside information, gleaned from reporters, that a naval officer had indeed committed the crime. And then again there is the "intriguing speculation" that Poe himself did away with the cigar girl in a fit of "alcoholic insanity. "
Stashower, it seems, is exercising his Poetic license. Not long after he wrote "Marie Rogêt" Poe published a mock scientific treatise entitled "Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences. " "Rightly considered," Poe observed, diddling "is a compound, of which the ingredients are minuteness, interest, perseverance, ingenuity, audacity, nonchalance, originality, impertinence, and grin. " Daniel Stashower is a diddler. And in The Beautiful Cigar Girl he makes murder a beguilingly edifying and entertaining subject.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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