A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe
by Mark Dawidziak
St. Martin’s Press, February 2023, $28.99
The ultimate mystery man, Edgar Allan Poe, gets the investigative treatment from Mark Dawidziak, whose many books include examinations of pop culture faves Columbo and the Night Stalker. Also a Mark Twain scholar, and former TV-radio-theater critic, Dawidziak spoke to dozens of sources, and mined multitudinous bios, reference works, and more to reveal truths behind myths, discrepancies, and outright fallacies.
A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe begins with the literary icon’s strange passing in Baltimore—a city he wasn’t intending to visit—at age 40 in 1849. Found wearing another man’s clothes, not long after telling a friend “I am full of dark forebodings,” Poe reportedly added to the intrigue by calling out a name that no one recognized in his final hours.
Dawidziak examines the many theories of what he calls “one of the great literary stage exits of all time,” making compelling arguments for tuberculosis (consumption) as cause of death, and then, in chapters that alternate between the end times and the beginnings, traces Poe’s rise, struggles, artistry and that confounding demise.
It didn’t help Poe’s eventual reputation that his first obituary, penned by a jealous colleague, was so mean that the French poet-critic Charles Baudelaire responded by asking, “Does there not exist in America an ordinance to keep dogs out of cemeteries?”
Among other things, the nasty obit depicted Poe as a drug addict—a moniker that didn’t fit, though Poe certainly had problems with alcohol. He also frequently tiffed with editors and associates, was given to mood swings, and played the victim among friends and family. What’s forgotten, argues the author, is that Poe—in the years before he turned “pale and haggard”—was a hardy athlete. He became enamored with poetry during childhood. He could be charming. He played the flute at parties, and with his wife, Virginia, performed duets. His beloved mother-in-law, who was also his aunt, called him “Eddy.” He was a cat lover.
As famed horror expert Robert Bloch (Psycho) once said, “People create their own images of horror writers, and these images often crowd out realities.”
The “take” on Poe is certainly enhanced by his visage in daguerreotypes; he seems the epitome of the tortured artist. Was that image of his own making? He was known to embellish his biography, to tweak certain facts (up to and including his birth date, making himself appear younger than he was!). When, at 27, he married his 13-year-old cousin, he craftily claimed she was 21.
This book deftly tracks Poe’s death, life, and times—and, in spite of all the adversity he faced, his blazing artistry. And of course, it also probes and proffers all that mystery that has engulfed his tale. An early Poe biographer once noted, “in a Poe story, nothing ever stays buried.” A Mystery of Mysteries does a fine job of unearthing the reason for all the curiosity and acclaim.
Southern California native Pat H. Broeske is a longtime reviewer for Mystery Scene. As a mystery devotee, and a former film industry journalist, she often writes about the intersection of Hollywood & crime, including film noir.