The Man Who Was Poe
(Avon, 1991)

It was a mystery worthy of Edgar Allan Poe, the man who, among his many other accomplishments, invented the modern mystery novel. And who better than Auguste Dupin, Poe's own creation, to solve it.

Avi's novel The Man Who was Poe begins with a mystery already underway. Young Edmund's mother has been missing for a year. He and his twin sister have traveled from London to Providence, Rhode Island, with Aunty Pru to search for her -- but now Pru is missing, too. And Sis has vanished from a locked room, leaving Edmund alone in a strange city without friends or resources.

But then he runs -- literally -- into the odd, gruff man who sees a few parallels between his own life and Edmund's, and he senses the seeds of a story in Edmund's tale. Introducing himself as Auguste Dupin, he agrees to solve the mystery -- but the mysterious Dupin is surrounded by puzzles of his own. There's his wretched passion for Helen Whitman, and the efforts by those around her to block his advances. There's his obvious addiction to alcohol. And there's his compulsion to recast the events in Edmund's story as elements of his own fictional story, even if it means assuming the deaths of those who might still be alive.

Poe (for of course Dupin is he) is not a likable man. Often drunk, frequently desperate and usually quite unfeeling, he occasionally exhibits uncharacteristic kindness towards Edmund. And he often shows signs of clear brilliance in following the convoluted clues of the case, worthy of Dupin himself. But there is a clear dichotomy between Poe the writer and Dupin the sleuth, and Edmund can never be sure which will present himself at any given moment.

Avi's story is a masterful riff on the Poe genre, conjuring a mystery and atmosphere worthy of Poe himself. He has written a Poe, not as we might have liked him to be, but quite probably very much like he was.

by Tom Knapp
14 October 2006

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