For Poe, nevermore is not an option

Writers just can't resist putting the father of the modern detective novel to work in their fiction.

January 03, 1999|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

For someone whose 190th birthday is a couple of weeks away, Edgar Allan Poe is a busy, busy man.

Consider ``Nevermore,'' a novel by Harold Schechter due out this week. The book, set in Baltimore in 1834, recalls how Poe wrote a review disdaining Congressman Davy Crockett's ``Autobiography.'' In the novel, the riled-up King of the Wild Frontier, who by coincidence is passing through Baltimore on a book tour, storms over to Poe's Amity Street home to confront him. (Note to aspiring critics: Trifle not with authors who dress in buckskin and wrestle bears.)

Challenged to a street brawl, Poe manfully shows up at the appointed hour only to find that Crockett has stumbled upon a savage murder. So the earnest, sensitive and slightly twisted literary aesthete teams up with the rough-and-ready frontiersman to help track down what turns out to be a serial killer.

As eccentric as the book may sound, ``Nevermore'' is just Poe's latest fictional reincarnation. In 1997, there was ``The Murder of Edgar Allan Poe,'' a novel by George Egon Hatvary, in which Poe's fictional detective, C.

Auguste Dupin, sets out for a very noir New World to track down his creator's killer. (Poe makes only a posthumous appearance in ``Murder,'' during a postmortem examination. Hatvary, though, makes it clear that Dupin is Poe's spiritual and physical double.)

In 1995, Poe played the hero of Stephen Marlowe's novel, ``The Lighthouse at the End of the World,'' a hallucinatory portrait of the artist that follows him through his chaotic literary career, up to the moment of his death and beyond.

Since Poe's death in Baltimore in 1849, his work has never stopped inspiring other artists, including such disparate talents as Arthur Conan Doyle, actor Vincent Price and the contemporary composer Philip Glass. Biographers continue to produce books about his tragic life. Poe's own tales have never been out of print.

But Poe seldom appeared as a character in books until recent years, with the rise in popularity of historical mysteries such as Caleb Carr's ``The Alienist.''

``All of a sudden the historicals have taken over,'' says Paige Rose, co-owner of Mystery Loves Company bookstore in Fells Point. ``You go through phases with mysteries, and this is the Age of the Historical. That's the only way to put it.''

Such real-life characters as William Shakespeare, Eleanor Roosevelt, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain and Feodor Dostoevski have all appeared in murder mysteries, Rose points out. And who better to play sleuth than Poe, who helped transplant the word ``detective'' from its native French to English?

``He is the father of the modern detective story, and I think there's always been a great interest in him, certainly a great literary interest,'' says Ann Poe Lehr, Baltimore native, Poe's distant cousin, and owner, aptly enough, of ``Poe's Cousin,'' another mystery bookstore in White Plains, N.Y.

But in recent years, that interest has intensified, she says. So much so, that at recent mystery conventions, fans started asking for her autograph - as though she carried some of the aura of her ancestor's fame.

``Nevermore'' began as an attempt to write the script for a ``buddy movie'' set in 19th-century America, says Schechter, a professor of English at Queens College in New York and author of a series of true-life crime books. To Schechter, long an admirer of Poe, the author was an obvious choice for lead buddy. But he had a harder time deciding on Poe's partner - until he recalled the character from the Walt Disney television series.

Schechter figured the straightforward and plain-spoken Crockett would make the perfect foil for the cerebral poet, writer and critic. Along the way, the movie script became the manuscript of a novel. And something curious happened to the dark, macabre tale that Schechter expected to tell.

``As I began to write in Poe's voice, something struck me as very amusing about him,'' he says. ``Here was this incredible neurasthenic, whose very real genius was combined with this totally hysterical personality.''

Poe, he realized, could be a real comedian.

So in the book, when Poe's aunt, Maria Clemm, asks him how he slept, Poe responds: ``Slumber - that blessed but fickle benefactress - withheld her sweet nepenthe from my soul.''

``Do I take that to mean 'yes'?'' Clemm replies.

Schechter narrates the book by imitating Poe's distinctive style of prose. It was a risky decision: mishandled, his baroque, poetic diction might have congealed on the page. But Schechter manages at once to be faithful to Poe's voice, and to poke gentle fun at it - to swing breezily between parody and homage.

``During the whole of a dull, dark, and dreary day, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the sky,'' the book begins, ``I had been sitting in my chamber, poring over a medical treatise of singular interest and merit.''

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