Let’s begin with the potential problems and explain why they don’t exist. This is the third in a trilogy, the first two of which I have not read. Did it matter? No, not in the least. The story is free-standing in itself; the characters from earlier books soon establish themselves and any necessary background is conveyed naturally and without sounding like a lecture on What Happened Before You Came In.
Secondly, the narrator is Edgar Allan Poe and the other principal character is his fictional detective Auguste Dupin. Had I read The Murders in the Rue Morgue? I had not, and in fact know very little of Poe’s life. Again, it didn’t matter. No doubt those who are better informed will find an extra dimension to the tale, but essentially what we have here is an historical whodunnit, though the question is not actually so much whodunnit as how they dunnit and whether they can be apprehended before they do anything worse. And anyone who enjoys hist fic and detective fic will be well capable of enjoying this.
Our narrator, whatever his historical provenance, comes alive very well: a man keenly aware of the world around him, grieving for the recent death of his young wife, gamely trying to stick to a pledge of abstinence from drink, sensitive to environments and atmospheres, with a dry wit. The narrative actually begins with his own impending death and then goes into flashback, a stylistic trick that shifts the reader’s interest from “what happens next” to “how do we get from A to Z?”, and which works particularly well in a narrative where many will already know what happens at Z. The beginning of the flashback – his narrative of how he got from A to Z – sees him in his garden, in surroundings that would be idyllic were they not empty of his dead wife:
The cherry and apple blossoms had flurried down weeks previously and there were nubs of fruit on the boughs as spring ambled into summer. The foliage was still a tender green and rain in the night had scented the air with the richness of loam. I examined the wildflower garden I had planted in the shade under my wife Virginia’s guidance
Poe is by no means the only historical (or fictional) character to put in an appearance; one of the most entertaining scenes in the novel involves a literary salon where we run into George Sand, Eugène Sue and a rather irritating mouthy young poet who idolises Poe and whose first name is Charles…. But this is a novel where locations are as important as people. The “empire of the dead” is the tunnels and catacombs beneath Paris, where much of the action takes place. This is a promising location, and the Poe who reacted so keenly to the beauty of his own garden is as acute on these more sinister surroundings:
Golden light shimmered along the bleak walls, but our four lanterns did little to dispel the malevolent atmosphere. Sounds were amplified: pattering feet, the flutter of wings, chatters and squeaks—sounds that might fill one with the joy of nature in a woodland or some attractive city park, but evoked nothing but dread in this tomb-like space.
The solution to this mystery depends partly on something that might loosely be called supernatural, though it’s perhaps more correctly described as a bit of steampunk science. For anyone who feels uncomfortable with non-natural explanations, there is the odd hint that Poe’s abstinence regime may not be quite as strict as he claims, and that alcohol has a powerful effect on him. But in a genre where historical and fictional characters walk down the same streets, not to mention very creepy subterranean passages, suspension of disbelief does tend to be easier than, say, in kitchen-sink drama. The most important thing about a whodunnit, in whatever sub-genre, is that it should be a page-turner, which this is. But it also helps to have engaging characters and a fluent writing style, as this does. Our narrator’s voice is not pastiche Poe but does sound a completely credible voice for someone of his time and place.