Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"Make no mistake, the task at hand affects him deeply."

At the end of February, I read the non-fiction The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and The Invention of Murder, a very thorough and well-written historical book by Daniel Stashower. It tells the story of a young woman, Mary Rogers, who went missing from New York in 1841 and was found the next day on the Jersey coast. She had been strangled and possibly raped. They never found the culprit and it was in the New York headlines for a long time. Edgar Allan Poe had briefly met the young woman when she worked at a tobacco shop and he wrote the story "The Mystery of Marie Roget" as a retelling of the story but he changed the location to France. This way, he was able to make it another story starring his "detective" C. Auguste Dupin. Right before he was set to release what he thought was a brilliant solution to the case, the authorities discovered that Mary may have died during a botched abortion and that the body was falsely made to look like a rape/murder. Poe had to change his story to follow this new development and it never flowed properly because he meant some of the evidence to be significant and had built it up in the previous parts of the story. The Beautiful Cigar Girl was an interesting book mainly because it detailed the start of the organized and government-run police force in New York City -- changes brought about, in part, by the public uproar over the Mary Rogers case.

At the beginning of May, I then read The Blackest Bird by Joel Rose. This is a fictional account of the same story that actually fingers Poe at one point as the murderer of Mary Rogers. It's told from the point of view of the chief constable of New York City as he tries to track down the criminal(s). I have to say, I preferred the non-fiction version. Joel Rose is a very dry, factual writer. There was an entire section that seemed almost identical to the non-fiction book as he told the facts of the murder. This book also brought in the Colt family (think firearms, not malt liquor) but they were very one-dimensional characters. This book was interesting in one way -- as the first time I read a historical fiction about Poe that dealt much with the personality of his aunt/mother-in-law, Mrs. Clemm. I just thought that this could have been made into a much more interesting story but it seemed to bring in too many characters and then dropped a solution in your lap at the end that was not very satisfying. Also, Rose actually uses 4 whole pages of his own novel to reprint "The Raven". It seemed like cheating.

So, if you are looking to read the story of Mary Rogers, stick to the non-fiction account -- and there are much better historical fictions out there starring Poe. I'll share some of those another time.

Until later,

Buy The Beautiful Cigar Girl and The Blackest Bird on Amazon or find them at your local library.

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