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THE TELL-TALE CORPSE
An Edgar Allan Poe Mystery
By Harold Schechter
Ballantine Books, March 2006 ($24.95)
ISBN: 0-345-44842-1 Reviewed by Shirley H. Wetzel
NYC Oct. 1845. Edgar Allan Poe has been doing well with his newspaper career, but his wife's illness preys on his mind. Although he has been sober for quite a while, his recurring depression gets the best of him one blustery October night and he strides into a saloon, spends every cent in his pocket, and stumbles out an hour later. He collides with a monstrous character in a hooded cloak, who turns out to be one of P. T. Barnum's "freaks." The kindly gentleman escorts the tipsy Poe into Barnum's establishment where the proprietor can help him recover from his slip. Poe tells his old friend about his concern for Virginia's health. Doctors have done everything they can to try to cure her of her chronic illness, to no avail. Barnum offers Poe a possible solution: a naturopathic doctor in Massachusetts, Dr. Farragut has been working miracles for the most hopeless cases, and Barnum will fund the Poe's travel if Edgar will do a small favor for him. Moses Kimball, owner of the Boston Museum, an establishment comparable to Barnum's, has offered to trade some relics from a grisly Boston murder for something of equal value, and Barnum wants Poe to collect the items for him. Easy enough, or so it seems at the time.
While Poe and his wife are in Boston they attend a performance at the museum by Dr. Marston, a prominent dentist, laughing-gas specialist, and would-be poet. While there, he makes the acquaintance of four young ladies by the name of Alcott. Through a series of circumstances the Poes find themselves accompanying the young ladies home to Concord, where their mother welcomes them into the family home. No matter that Poe has been known to disparage the writing of the children's father, Bronson. The feisty Louy, also known as Louisa May, has taken a liking to the couple, and she is not to be denied. She informs Poe that she is a big fan of his work, is also a writer, and plans follow in his footsteps. She proceeds to do just that during his stay, helping him with his detecting skills as people are assaulted and corpses pile up.
Unlikely as the pairing of Louisa May Alcott and Edgar Allan Poe may seem, I found it entertaining and kind of endearing. To add to the fun, the Alcott's friend Henry David Thoreau makes a cameo appearance. This helps lighten the overall horror of the assorted crimes, which in addition to assaults and horrendous murders include grave robbing, traffic in human body parts, desecration of corpses -- the list goes on. The author has managed to create an excellent work of fiction while staying true to historic characters and events.
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