For someone whose 190th birthday is a couple of weeks away, Edgar Allan Poe is a busy, busy man.
Consider "Nevermore," a novel by Harold Schechter due out this week. The book, set in Baltimore in 1834, recalls how Poe wrote a review disdaining Congressman Davy Crockett's "Autobiography." In the novel, the riled-up King of the Wild Frontier, who by coincidence is passing through Baltimore on a book tour, storms over to Poe's Amity Street home to confront him. (Note to aspiring critics: Trifle not with authors who dress in buckskin and wrestle bears.)
Challenged to a street brawl, Poe manfully shows up at the appointed hour only to find that Crockett has stumbled upon a savage murder. So the earnest, sensitive and slightly twisted literary aesthete teams up with the rough-and-ready frontiersman to help track down what turns out to be a serial killer.
As eccentric as the book may sound, "Nevermore" is just Poe's latest fictional reincarnation. In 1997, there was "The Murder of Edgar Allan Poe," a novel by George Egon Hatvary, in which Poe's fictional detective, C.
Auguste Dupin, sets out for a very noir New World to track down his creator's killer. (Poe makes only a posthumous appearance in "Murder," during a postmortem examination. Hatvary, though, makes it clear that Dupin is Poe's spiritual and physical double.)
In 1995, Poe played the hero of Stephen Marlowe's novel, "The Lighthouse at the End of the World," a hallucinatory portrait of the artist that follows him through his chaotic literary career, up to the moment of his death and beyond.
Since Poe's death in Baltimore in 1849, his work has never stopped inspiring other artists, including such disparate talents as Arthur Conan Doyle, actor Vincent Price and the contemporary composer Philip Glass. Biographers continue to produce books about his tragic life. Poe's own tales have never been out of print.
But Poe seldom appeared as a character in books until recent years, with the rise in popularity of historical mysteries such as Caleb Carr's "The Alienist."
"All of a sudden the historicals have taken over," says Paige Rose, co-owner of Mystery Loves Company bookstore in Fells Point. "You go through phases with mysteries, and this is the Age of the Historical. That's the only way to put it."
Such real-life characters as William Shakespeare, Eleanor Roosevelt, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain and Feodor Dostoevski have all appeared in murder mysteries, Rose points out. And who better to play sleuth than Poe, who helped transplant the word "detective" from its native French to English?
"He is the father of the modern detective story, and I think there's always been a great interest in him, certainly a great literary interest," says Ann Poe Lehr, Baltimore native, Poe's distant cousin, and owner, aptly enough, of "Poe's Cousin," another mystery bookstore in White Plains, N.Y.
But in recent years, that interest has intensified, she says. So much so, that at recent mystery conventions, fans started asking for her autograph - as though she carried some of the aura of her ancestor's fame.
"Nevermore" began as an attempt to write the script for a "buddy movie" set in 19th-century America, says Schechter, a professor of English at Queens College in New York and author of a series of true-life crime books. To Schechter, long an admirer of Poe, the author was an obvious choice for lead buddy. But he had a harder time deciding on Poe's partner - until he recalled the character from the Walt Disney television series.
Schechter figured the straightforward and plain-spoken Crockett would make the perfect foil for the cerebral poet, writer and critic. Along the way, the movie script became the manuscript of a novel. And something curious happened to the dark, macabre tale that Schechter expected to tell.
"As I began to write in Poe's voice, something struck me as very amusing about him," he says. "Here was this incredible neurasthenic, whose very real genius was combined with this totally hysterical personality."
Poe, he realized, could be a real comedian.
So in the book, when Poe's aunt, Maria Clemm, asks him how he slept, Poe responds: "Slumber - that blessed but fickle benefactress - withheld her sweet nepenthe from my soul."
"Do I take that to mean 'yes'?" Clemm replies.
Schechter narrates the book by imitating Poe's distinctive style of prose. It was a risky decision: mishandled, his baroque, poetic diction might have congealed on the page. But Schechter manages at once to be faithful to Poe's voice, and to poke gentle fun at it - to swing breezily between parody and homage.
"During the whole of a dull, dark, and dreary day, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the sky," the book begins, "I had been sitting in my chamber, poring over a medical treatise of singular interest and merit."
Poe's buddy Crockett was the most famous of what his contemporaries called "backwoods screamers," boastful mountain men who were as shameless in their self-promotion as they were ruthless in a fight. Here, too, Schechter creates a more or less authentic voice for Crockett using, as pattern, Crockett's writing.
"Why, you infarnal varmint!" Crockett tells a low-life living on Baltimore's rough Inner Harbor. "You best be afeard! I am David Crockett - sired by an airthquake, half-brother to the alligator and a near relation to the small-pox on my mother's side! I can out-wrassle a panther, tote a steamboat on my back, and play rough-and-tumble with a lion. ... I can walk like an ox, run like a fox, swim like an eel, fight like the devil - and swallow a whippersnapper like you whole without chokin'!"
The murders in "Nevermore" all echo Poe tales - there is a body hidden under floorboards, a murder that mimics "The Masque of the Red Death," and the destruction of a house belonging to a brother and sister named "Asher." As the gruesomely disfigured bodies pile up, it becomes clear to Poe that the solution to the mystery is intimately related to his family history. Gradually, he becomes a suspect in his own investigation.
Poe's voice sounds authentic, the logical though loose-jointed plot gallops along and both heroes emerge as engaging characters. Pairing Poe and Crockett might strike some readers, at first, as surreal, like those old "Star Trek" television episodes where aliens resurrect, say, Genghis Kahn and Hitler only to pit them against one another in a duel-to-the-death with outsized lobster forks.
But Schechter's odd coupling seems, oddly enough, to fit. Poe and Crockett make comfortable buddies after all. Think "Die Hard with a Neverending Vengeance," or "Lethal Weapons: the Pit and Pendulum."
Schechter even has history on his side, up to a point: Poe did pan Crockett's "Autobiography," and Crockett did come to Baltimore to promote the book. Schechter admits, though, that there is no evidence the pair ever met.
Surprisingly, given his background as a true-crime writer, Schechter is better at writing
comedy than suspense. If you seek the macabre, the tragic and eerie - something to raise the hair on the back of your neck - seek it elsewhere. Instead, critical scenes rattle along when they should crackle.
Neither does Schechter take more than a token stab at re-creating the raw scenes of early 19th-century Baltimore, with its slave pens, cholera epidemics, street gangs and starving immigrants. Still, what "Nevermore" modestly attempts, it mostly succeeds at.
And for good or ill, Rose believes we can expect the melancholy figure of Poe, whose fascination with death has earned him a measure of immortality, to continue to haunt contemporary fiction.