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A Toast to Poe

Edgar Allan Poe was born 200 years ago on January 19, 1809.  Every school child knows him as an American literary master of the macabre, the author of “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven” (quoth he, “Nevermore”). 

Poe experienced his share of pain and suffering.  Born in Boston to parents in the theatre, he was orphaned by the age of two, adopted by the Allans and brought to Richmond.  After his adoptive mother died, he fell out with his father, and left home.  His engagement to his first fiancé was broken by her parents, and his marriage to his young cousin Virginia Clemm ended after only 11 years when she burst a blood vessel, became an invalid, and died of tuberculosis.  Her death inspired his poem Annabel Lee, and in fact, much of his work is a reflection of his obsession with death.  He died two years later in mysterious circumstances.

Poe was an early writer of gothic fiction in America, of horror and melancholy.  But how many know that Poe is considered the father of detective fiction?  His character, C. Auguste Dupin, who lived in Paris and solved crimes using psychological reasoning, was the first fictional detective.

The Mystery Writers of America, the preeminent society of crime novelists, editors and publishers, has awarded the Edgar to the finest novels, plays, motion pictures, television series, children’s books, and crime nonfiction for decades.  Beginning in 1945, Edgars have been awarded to the best examples of writing in fifteen categories, the most prominent of which is Grand Master for significant contributions to the mystery genre and a consistently high quality body of work.  Past Grand Masters include Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, George Simenon, John D. MacDonald, Alfred Hitchcock, Ross Macdonald, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, Ngaio Marsh, Daphne du Maurier, John le Carre, Ed McBain, Phyllis Whitney, Tony Hillerman, Donald Westlake (the last three of whom died in 2008), Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, Mickey Spillane, Dick Francis, Ruth Rendell, Barbara Mertz (aka Elizabeth Peters, Barbara Michaels), P. D. James, Mary Higgins Clark, Robert B. Parker, Joseph Wambaugh, Marcia Muller, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Stephen King, Bill Pronzini, and double honorees for 2009 James Lee Burke and Sue Grafton.

Poe is one of the most anthologized writers of short fiction, and many collections are gathered with a focus on Poe himself.  Two new anthologies have arrived just in time for the Poe Bicentennial. Michael Connelly has edited “In the Shadow of the Master”,  which collects sixteen works by Poe, in a commemorative volume that is complemented by essays from twenty popular authors, including Stephen King, Nelson DeMille, Sue Grafton, and Lawrence Block.  DeMille recalls, as a teenager, quivering in his boots as he cuts through a cemetery after seeing the 3-D movie based on “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”.

 “On A Raven’s Wing: New Tales in Honor of Edgar Allan Poe” edited by Grand Master Stuart M. Kaminsky, includes stories by Mary Higgins Clark, Thomas H. Cook, Rupert Holmes, S. J. Rozan, Peter Lovesey and others.

Two recent mysteries will also interest fans of Poe.  Matthew Pearl, author of the historical thriller “Dante Club”, has written “The Poe Shadow”.  In 1849 Baltimore, following the death of Edgar Allan Poe, Quentin Clark, a young attorney fiercely loyal to his favorite author, discovers that Poe's final days had been marked by a series of bizarre, unanswered questions and, inspired by Poe's fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin, launches his own investigation to resolve the mystery of Poe's death.  The historical setting is well-rendered, and the language is appropriately in the style of Poe.

Laura Lippmann’s “In A Strange City” is a contemporary mystery set in Baltimore featuring private investigator Tess Monaghan.  Tess witnesses the annual birthday tribute to Poe, in which a mysterious black caped Poe Toaster leaves three roses and a glass of cognac at his grave but, instead of one Poe Toaster, there are two, one of whom kills the other.  Tess has to find the killer before he finds her.

For young readers, Avi has written “The Man Who Was Poe”.  Edmond, alone since his mother and sister disappeared, has no one but a mysterious stranger who follows him around the city of Providence offering help.  He doesn’t know what the stranger intends, only that he holds the key to the whereabouts of his family.

Do you dare read an Edgar tonight?  Or perhaps a story by the master himself?  Visit your library for the best of Edgar Allan Poe and the best in mystery and detective tales to keep you up all night.  Light a candle in honor of Edgar’s 200th birthday, and wish for pleasant dreams!

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