Edgar Allan Poe and The Empire of the Dead

Written by Karen Lee Street
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

This is the third of Street’s Poe and Dupin mysteries, in which Edgar Allan Poe collaborates with his own fictional detective of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. Still mourning the death of his young wife, Sissy, though visited by her wraith, Poe receives a letter from Auguste Dupin in Paris asking his help in tracking down stolen correspondence, but the summons proves to be a skilful forgery, designed to bring the two men into the clutches of Dupin’s nemesis Ernest Valdemar and Poe’s old enemy George Reynolds.

Street’s prose captures pretty convincingly Poe’s own voice, and there will be much here that those who know his writings well will recognise, with references particularly to “The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar”. Late 1840s Paris is vividly evoked, from both the pretentiousness of literary salons and the sinister marionette theatre above ground, to the catacombs below, with their network of tunnels and ossuaries and even a mushroom farm with its maimed workers. We are in the realm of magical realism, where the fictional Dupin is made flesh and blood, and where, through the transmigration of souls, or metempsychosis, both the good and the evil are able to cheat death – though a weaker or needier person always pays.

Just as in Poe’s own story “Valdemar”, which he published without immediately enlightening those who read it as a factual account, the author plays with the reader in the most intriguing ways. Who really is Dupin’s enigmatic housekeeper Mme. Morel, and is the Great Berith simply a showman, an accomplished magician or someone much more sinister? A gripping read, and a worthy homage to Poe’s genius.