- Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru: A Poe and Dupin Mystery by Karen Lee Street
Amid the long history of turning Edgar Allan Poe into a fictional character, a number of novelists have envisioned the iconic author as an amateur detective. In Harold Schechter's Nevermore (1999), for example, Poe joins with none other than Davy Crockett to solve a Baltimore murder. Schechter went on to write more cases for Poe to tackle, but before that series, Poe had been envisioned as inhabiting the same world as his foundational detective character, C. Auguste Dupin. George Hatvary's The Murder of Edgar Allan Poe has Dupin coming to America to uncover the murderer of the very author who invented him—or so we thought! Matthew Pearl's The Poe Shadow offers a spin on that same premise.
In yet another configuration, Poe and Dupin go sleuthing side by side in Karen Lee Street's Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru. This is the sequel to Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster. The couplings in those titles might suggest that readers are in store for the high-tension action and larger-than-life heroics found in, say, a Harry Potter or Indiana Jones adventure. This would be a mistake, though, because Jewel of Peru is comparatively tame. Looking at the novel's setting begins to explain this. In terms of the location, some characters arrive from London and Paris, and there's an important journal recounting an expedition to Peru. However, the story proper is confined to Philadelphia. In terms of the physics of the setting—or, better said, the magical or otherwise supernatural elements—there are nods to ornithomancy (i.e., discerning omens from the behavior of birds), but no confirmation that such a thing is real. In other words, Street offers nothing along the lines of flying broomsticks for playing Quidditch or biblical artifacts for melting Nazis.
There are birds, however—many, many birds—along with a character named Miss Helena Loddiges, an ornithologist and taxidermist who adorns herself with feathers and hummingbird heads. Loddiges, in the role of the mystery's "client," urges Poe to investigate the suspicious death of Andrew Matthews. Matthews had worked for Loddiges's family as a bird collector. On an expedition in Peru, Matthews had made a great discovery involving the title jewel, and at least one rival treasure hunter wants more than his share of the booty. Herein, lies the intrigue. [End Page 306]
There probably is enough intrigue to satisfy readers seeking a winding and well-crafted mystery novel. I suspect that those who are more interested in Poe himself will be mildly disappointed, though. To be sure, Street has done her homework on the man. Virginia, his wife, and Maria, his aunt/mother-in-law, are included, as is his cat, Cattrina. The fictional Poe does reveal an interest in cryptography that was shared with the real author. Street invented a nemesis for her protagonist and named him Reynolds. Staunch Poe followers will recognize that name as one the real author uttered in the delirium preceding his death. The cultural milieu seems well researched, too. The "Know Nothing" movement is in full swing with its anti-immigrant, anti-Irish, and anti-Catholic agitation, and this bears on the motives of the Catholic clerics who figure into that plot to acquire the prized jewel. All of these biographical and historical touches are to Street's credit.
Regarding those clerics, though, the novel presents Poe as being particularly sympathetic to the Catholic community, a characteristic that might seem odd to anyone who sees "A Cask of Amontillado" as a far-from-flattering depiction of Catholic devotion. Similarly, at one point, Poe discusses playwriting without so much as an unspoken thought of The Politian, a script he had begun about a decade prior to 1844, the year in which Street's novel is set.
Those might be quibbles, but there is a more fundamental problem in the dynamic between...