Speaking with the Dead
I like the idea of a holiday for the dead.
Memorial Day has just passed and as usual, most of the unenlightened masses have used it as just another excuse to stuff their fat faces with hot dogs. It’s unfortunate, and not just because today’s soldiers are coming home to find that the very citizens they’ve sworn to protect often couldn't care less. After all, there’s a new American Idol, right?
It’s also because cemeteries, for all the tragedy and sorrow that they hold for the living, are truly compelling places. These hallowed grounds, whether they’re military or civilian, carry the history of people and places long after family and friends and heirs have long turned to dust themselves.
The holiday itself grew organically from the aftermath of the Civil War when the ruined communities on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line came together to mark the end of the conflict, try to find some consolation, and of course, visit the dead. In the South, where I grew up, you can still find some codgers calling it Decoration Day. That’s the original name given by General John Logan, who saw the honor given to Confederates and strongly believed that Union soldiers, too, deserved the tribute in death that they surely missed in life.
These places haunt me, whether it’s the blood-soaked fields of Shiloh or the seamless rows of white stones at Arlington, where I imagine the ghost of Robert E. Lee pacing the floor of his beloved mansion on the hill. It isn’t captured clearly very often in fiction, although Nicholas Proffitt’s moving novel Gardens of Stone is one of the few that bears the weight of the place well. Over 260,000 men and women are buried at Arlington, including an undistinguished U.S. Army sergeant named Samuel Dashiell Hammett, and there are more on their way every day.
Whether it’s Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day or the Brits’ Remembrance Day, when it seems like every soldier from every war marches past Queen and country, it’s a worthy thing to remember those gone before us. There’s nothing like a burial ground to give you that jarring reminder to enjoy your own remaining days.
It seems like a decent enough time to visit the dead here, not by perusing the cemeteries, but by seeing how some real characters are remembered by today’s novelists.
The most pressing corpse enjoying an unlikely renaissance is the odd young poet spotlighted in Louis Bayard’s The Pale Blue Eye. It chronicles the grim misadventure of a West Point cadet named Edgar Allan Poe in a mystery that would be worthwhile even if Poe never appeared in it.
Much of its appeal is due to Bayard’s unique hero, a retired New York City police detective named Gus Landor. He’s an unapologetic drunk, much like his odd protégé, and only reluctantly agrees to visit the nearby military academy at the fervent request of its real-life superintendent, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, and his severe second-in-command, Commandant Ethan Allen Hitchcock.
The murder at the heart of the book is gruesome, cinematic and oddly mesmerizing. One of Thayer’s boys has been hung in an apparent suicide but afterwards his heart was cut methodically from his chest in a ritualistic fashion. To further his investigation, Landor recruits Poe, presented here at an unkempt, maniacal twenty years of age, to be his spy among the other cadets. Bayard does terrific work building up his suspenseful plot and his portrait of Poe, riddled with eccentricity and clues to his future literary output, is worthy even by comparison to Poe’s twisted work. While it may not be the most accurate depiction of the author, who has inhabited works ranging from Andrew Taylor’s American Boy to a fistful of horror films, the book’s twist ending is darkly rewarding.
Matthew Pearl’s work has integrated plenty of real people before, best exemplified by his popular murder mystery, The Dante Club, which utilized Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes to great effect. In his new book, The Poe Shadow, it’s Poe’s death that takes center stage. Here, Pearl starts with the strange and infamous circumstances surrounding Poe’s death at 40. It’s likely that alcoholism and madness had simply overtaken him but the theories range from syphilis to rabies to a kidnapping plot.
Pearl gets around Poe’s absence by inventing a fictional fanboy in his protagonist, Baltimore attorney Quentin Clark. Convinced that Poe met his bad end through foul play, Clark heads to Paris to enlist another fictional detective, Auguste Duponte, who served as a model for Poe’s own fundamental creation, Dupin from “The Murder in the Rue Morgue.” Pearl’s work is far more convoluted than is strictly necessary and readers who get truly intrigued with Poe as a character might be better served with the surviving work of the author one critic has called a “charlatan, plagiarist, pathological liar, whimpering child, egomaniac, braggart, and irresponsible drunkard.” We should all be so praiseworthy.
For visual reference, I’d also have to recommend a comic book -- or more accurately, a stark, bleak graphic novel -- called In The Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe, published by Vertigo. It uses a photorealistic approach, with an actor named Damon Norko playing the part of Poe, in a story about a lost diary of the late author that details his dark last days.
There’s been plenty of talk in the trade about the boom in historical fiction and I’ve touched on it myself but I still think this particular subset -- true detective novels set far enough back to have the flavor of the past but accessible enough that the vernacular doesn’t give pause -- reached its apex with Caleb Carr. His novel The Alienist and its equally readable sequel, The Angel of Darkness, match his fictional Doctor Laszlo Kreitzler with a host of real figures ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to Clarence Darrow. They, along with a dabble at Sherlock Holmes in The Italian Secretary, still hold up as well as any of the historical mysteries that have emerged in the decade since The Alienist captured the public’s imagination.
Of course, a slew about the noble Mr. Holmes are available as well, most recently Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution. It’s a slight book by comparison to Chabon’s usual output, imagining the perplexing old detective as a beekeeper in Sussex. I’d also put Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind, which takes Holmes to post-atomic Japan, on the short list, although it may appeal more to the strict followers of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characterization than to mystery fans looking for a pure puzzle to solve.
Even though it’s strictly nonfiction, I would also offer up Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America as a suitable companion for anyone interested in this particular breed of mystery.
Perhaps the trick is setting the tone and the time first and then seeding the books with figures from the era. It makes for a decent enough intellectual exercise. The death of a hobo along the railroad tracks in Denver attracts a trio of vagabonds including a poet named Jack, his traveling companion Neal, and a traveling troubadour named Zimmerman who’s going by an assumed name. A bearded American novelist, suffering from the ravages of madness and drink, is recruited for an odd task by his adopted country’s Communist dictator during a fishing tournament. An Irish revolutionary narrowly escapes a bungled assassination attempt on his life but is forced to flee, leaving his country to grieve in the streets of Dublin over an empty box. You get the idea.
Besides, reading at the beach is a drag. Skip all that bleak, oppressive sunshine and come walk the cemetery grounds, listening to the ghosts of the people gone by. Keats and Yeats are on your side.