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Reviving Poe and his spirit

Until this year, British writer Andrew Taylor was best known on our shores for his "Roth Trilogy," a set of psychological thrillers set in a suburb of London, spanning several decades of the mid-20th century. Mystery fans might also remember his book "Caroline Minuscule," centered on an illuminated medieval manuscript, which was short-listed for the 1983 Edgar, mystery writing's most prestigious award. With "An Unpardonable Crime" (Hyperion, $24.95), set during the Regency period, Taylor nabs an Edgar of another sort.

Set in London in 1819, the novel envisions the school-age incarnation of the American poet who grew up to write "The Gold Bug" and "The Pit and the Pendulum." "I worked out the math," says Taylor, "and realized he could have walked the same London streets as Jane Austen." Taylor then created a back story to go with the future writer's imagination. In "An Unpardonable Crime," Poe touchstones abound.

Young Edgar isn't a central character. Rather, it's a boy named Charlie Frant, heir to a bank fortune, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Edgar, around whom the plot revolves. When a corpse is found near a building site, Charlie's tutor (and our narrator) Mr. Shield accompanies the boy home. There, he witnesses a codicil to the will of a dying man; runs into Edgar's out-of-work father, the sinister actor David Poe; and discovers that the murder at hand may be connected to profiteering during the War of 1812. He also encounters a possible precursor to the animal that inspired Poe's poem "The Raven."

Taylor talked by phone from his home in the Forest of Dean, England, near the Welsh border.

How did this book start for you?

A. It started with Poe's "Tales of Mystery and Imagination." I happened to read the foreword, and it mentioned he spent four years in England. It was like a revelation [that he was there during Austen's lifetime]. Two major 19th-century figures suddenly in the same frame. . . . I became fascinated with the idea of coaxing a murder mystery out of his life.

There are a lot of holes in his biography. After his mother died when he was 3 and his father disappeared, he was adopted by the Allans. His own death has never been explained.

His life was as mysterious as his short stories. . . . It strikes you how many ghosts are there, how many unresolved traumas.

David Poe, Edgar's father, plays an essential part in your novel. What did you know about him when you began?

A. There's not very much known. I read most of the standard biographies and letters. We know about his career as an actor. There's a good deal of evidence that he was a drunk. In the letters, he's arrogant. At 18, he began to train as a lawyer. He couldn't hack it and turned to the stage, where he met his wife. . . . There are various versions of where he was last seen. Nobody knows.

What do you make of the fact that both the writer and his father died under mysterious circumstances?

A. As a novelist, I want to see a pattern. . . . As a historian, I would be inclined to think it was the way things happened. But the reason why [Edgar] Poe vanished is far more of a mystery. I'm totally convinced by any of the theories: He fell in with some electioneering people who made him drunk so he could vote again and again. It's equally plausible he met some old friends and the friends revealed something to him or made him drunk. Something must have really upset him. . . . Before he vanished, he was on an up. He was off the alcohol.

Poe's story "The Gold Bug" is considered the first detective story. Did you read him when you were a kid?

A. I read him pretty young. About 12, I think.

So he's been a major influence?

A. Very much so. I think he was one of the forefathers of any crime fiction. The whole branch of psychological fiction. The dark recesses of the human mind -- where the mind could trickle into. Obsession. The boundaries between the known and unknown. I write the sort of books that aren't easily contained within the genre. I go with the idea that crime fiction could be anything.

Poe's dense writing style sometimes adds to the mystery.

It's complex, dense stuff. He says an awful lot in that mangled syntax in a complex, short way. . . . He deals in hints rather than realities. He makes you glance nervously into the shadows. You're not sure what it is. I'm not sure he knew what it was.

Although "An Unpardonable Crime" takes place in pre-Dickensian London, in which people are transported by carriage and houses are lit by candlelight, I couldn't help feeling I was reading a hard-boiled detective novel. Shield, a guy with a checkered past, needs to redeem himself . . .

The hero striding down the streets of the mean city? The good woman and the other woman in the low-necked dress, the temptress? That wasn't conscious, but now that you've said it -- when I think about all the [Dashiell] Hammett that I read in my teens and again in my 30s . . .

What do you find compelling about the Regency period?

A. I've always been interested in it . . . I came to Jane Austen very young. I think one of the reasons it's a very interesting period is [that] it's accessible to people a couple of hundred years later. The language and the mental attitudes you can grasp. The next reason is that it's the period just before the Victorian age comes down like a huge black blanket over things. It's a very fertile and active time, particularly in the UK. We'd won the Battle of Waterloo. . . . We were the top dog of nations.

In your research for this book, did you delve into the experience of being buried alive, a favorite Poe theme?

A. I did lie in a large cardboard box, just to get the feel.

Did you close the cover?

A. Yes, complete darkness. Absolutely essential.

What about the parrot in the novel, who keeps saying "Ayez peur" [Be afraid]? Was there really an antecedent for "The Raven"?

A. We know [Poe's] foster parents had a parrot that spoke. The idea -- the parrot would kick the whole thing into parody, wouldn't it?

Robin Dougherty, a writer and critic, lives in Washington, D.C. Her column appears every other week. She can be reached at inkrd@aol.com. 

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