Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A mystery for a mystery writer

Every year I throw a fit because Best American Crime Writing lasts for only 200 or 300 pages.  I plod toward the end after an initial burst through the first three quarters of articles, my enjoyment of the last few lessened by anticipation of finishing and slipping it onto the shelf next to last year's volume.  Then I remember book-length true crime.

This genre doesn't contain the quality guarantee of the anthologies, which publish the best crime journalism each year.  It can be tough to find well-written books in the sea of sensational pulp paperbacks and Mark Fuhrman mea culpas.  I find the worthwhile ones, often, in used bookstores, which almost always have a great true crime section filled with classics of the genre and trade paperbacks written by seasoned journalists sticking out like towers over the low-lying and tattered Ann Rules (disclaimer: I read her book on Ted Bundy, and I enjoyed it, but she's not my type).  

The Beautiful Cigar Girl, written by mystery novelist and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle biographer Daniel Stashower, fulfills the need for quality true crime if you're willing to tolerate some biography with your mysterious disappearance.  The biography in question follows Edgar Allen Poe during an unsuccessful and drink-sodden period of his life.  He bounces from a foster home to a short stint at the University of Virginia to naval service to staff positions at literary magazines, finding security for short periods and then blowing his luck.  Eventually, he lands in New York, and around the same time a gal about town, Mary Rogers, disappears.  The city is captivated, and so is Poe, who endeavors to investigate the case and spin his theories into detective fiction.  

Stashower knows how to keep us turning pages even when we're with Poe, when the story could conceivably drag next to the excitement and suspense of the central mystery.  He explores the confluence of Poe and Mary Rogers' disappearance with appropriately placed tangents - on contemporary detective fiction, on the culture and figures of 19th-century New York City and its surrounding riverbanks (the New Jersey side of the Hudson sounded pretty nice back then), and on what exactly a "cigar girl" is.  The parallel stories (which remind me of the style of Erik Larson's last two books) weave together beautifully, the humanity of a young genius and the sensationalism of a high-profile disappearance a fortunate confluence and the perfect subject for a book.


  1. Man of la BookMarch 2, 2011 3:29 PM

    Great review of what seems like an excellent book.
    You do know that this is a true story and Poe wrote "The Mystery of Marie RogĂȘt" as his version of the Mary Rogers murder investigation.

  2. What Book TodayMarch 2, 2011 3:31 PM

    Yes - I love that he set it in France. This book tells the story of his transforming the real disappearance into that story. It's fascinating. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. 8c5fb9ea-45a2-11e0-9943-000f20980440March 3, 2011 9:28 AM

    Sooo, I'll be the first to throw myself on the razor wire...

    Why not try our book, OUR LITTLE SECRET? It's not written like a trial transcript or in the good guy/bad guy formula.

    Enjoy your posts...keep them coming.

    Kevin Flynn

  4. What Book TodayMarch 3, 2011 9:31 AM

    You are kidding me. I JUST BOUGHT THIS FROM AMAZON. I can't believe you came to my blog! What an honor! I can't WAIT to read your book - it looks awesome, and I picked it because it had great reviews and looked like a novelish true crime book (my favorite kind). I'll get to it soon :)

  5. RobynMarch 19, 2011 12:29 PM

    This sounds like a great read. Thanks for the review. I found your blog on goodreads and now I'm following.

  6. What Book TodayMarch 19, 2011 12:30 PM

    Robyn, thank you so much! I'm sure you'll enjoy the book and so glad you came across my review. Cheers!

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