Monday, September 17, 2012

CBR4 #30: Nevermore by Harold Schechter

Harold Schechter is mostly known for his true-crime accounts of serial killers. However, with Nevermore he introduces one of my favorite characters of the year: Edgar Allen Poe, narrator and detective.

Through set of rather interesting circumstances, Edgar Allan Poe (pre-authorial success--he makes a rather small living writing book reviews, most of which are scathing at best) finds himself faced with the angry author of a book he has reviewed: famed American frontiersman Davy Crockett. Crockett and Poe are polar opposites, but they wind up ensnared in a perplexing murder mystery which they must work together to solve.

Poe is both exactly what you would expect and delightfully beyond what you could imagine. His voice is so deliberately and agonizingly over-the-top that it is hilarious. For example, an early passage from him runs thus:

Before I could summon this agonized yell (an act which would unquestionably have alarmed the entire neighborhood and occasioned me a great deal of embarrassment), a dim awareness of my true situation broke into my overwrought fancy. Suddenly, I realized that the noise I had mistaken for gravedigging was in reality the muffled thud of some unknown caller, pounding on the front door of my residence. 

His voice continues like that through the whole book, combining Poe's real-life style with the popular tone of that time. What makes it even more entertaining is that Davy Crockett's lines are all in a more rough (and less frilly) prose, and the contrast is wonderful.

The plot is reasonable, though I will admit that--while historically accurate--Poe's obsession with his pre-teen cousin is a bit creepy. Another great thing is how the events of the book are set up to appear to be the inspiration for Poe's most famous works (note the subtle 'Raven' references in the passage above). The characters and the writing were the real draw of this book for me, but even though I loved it, Schechter's take on Poe's style can occasionally become a slog. On the whole, though, I highly recommend this one to anyone who enjoys the work of Poe or good mysteries.


Jennifer said...

What a great review! Now I am going to have to go out and buy this book! Job well done...

The Caustic Critic said...

Thanks! There's also a sequel which I haven't gotten around to blogging about yet, in which Poe teams up with P.T. Barnum. Also great.

LadyDi said...

I am enjoying this book and I was thinking the same things: Did Poe and Crockett really talk like that? Was Poe really such a nerd that he was socially inept and unaware of the impression he left on people? The writing is good, but there are times when I feel like he wrote the whole story and then went back, thesaurus in hand, and put in as many big words as possible. I have a list of half a dozen of these so far that have made me stop in my reading and look them up because they made me uneasy, and as a reader that is different from looking up a word because you just don't know what it means.
I didn't know that pan could be used like this: the author of this "pan". "cognomen": my cognomen was on the package; I know he means name but can you use that word like that? and "distaff": his distaff companion? he means "female" companion, but I am not sure you can use that word like that. Overwrought is another word that I have a question about. overwrought fancy, yes, overwrought brain, yes, but King Lear an overwrought tragedy? Have you ever heard that word used like that?
Also the "ride" of the book - do you know what he means by that? I am still not sure what he was going for with that one.