Release date: 14 February 2023
Synopsis: A Mystery of Mysteries is a brilliant biography of Edgar Allan Poe that examines the renowned author’s life through the prism of his mysterious death and its many possible causes.
It is a moment shrouded in horror and mystery. Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849, at just forty, in a painful, utterly bizarre manner that would not have been out of place in one of his own tales of terror. What was the cause of his untimely death, and what happened to him during the three missing days before he was found, delirious and “in great distress” on the streets of Baltimore, wearing ill-fitting clothes that were not his own?
Mystery and horror. Poe, who remains one of the most iconic of American writers, died under haunting circumstances that reflect the two literary genres he took to new heights. Over the years, there has been a staggering amount of speculation about the cause of death, from rabies and syphilis to suicide, alcoholism, and even murder. But many of these theories are formed on the basis of the caricature we have come to associate with Poe: the gloomy-eyed grandfather of Goth, hunched over a writing desk with a raven perched on one shoulder, drunkenly scribbling his chilling masterpieces. By debunking the myths of how he lived, we come closer to understanding the real Poe—and uncovering the truth behind his mysterious death, as a new theory emerges that could prove the cause of Poe’s death was haunting him all his life.
In a compelling dual-timeline narrative alternating between Poe’s increasingly desperate last months and his brief but impactful life, Mark Dawidziak sheds new light on the enigmatic master of macabre.
It was incredibly difficult for me to read this piece of non-fiction, which purports on the surface to be an investigative look into the mysterious cause of Poe’s death and promises a sort of closed case on the matter, without viewing it through the lense of an educator grading a research paper. Having read Silverman’s biography already and all of Poe’s fiction, this book did not offer me much in the way of new information, though if anyone were to take up a new interest in reading about Poe, this biography, as short as it is, can provide a sort of introduction to basic facts about the writer. I found the writing style and presentation of material in this edition left much to be desired.
To my significant disappointment, this book is very poorly composed. Much of the research relies heavily on what has already been written about Poe by previous biographers. I would expect a published work that touts itself as a “brilliant biography” to draw on primary sources and offer new insight from them, not glean snippets of observations from those who have already done so.
As to the form of the biography, I would not expect a paper written in the manner as this book is to be submitted as finished from an undergraduate university student, much less a published writer. Many quotes are dropped in the text without transitions or introductions, making for a very stilted reading experience. What’s worse, said quotes compose the majority of the content of the book, and it reads like a long string of copied and pasted direct quotes strung together by intermittent interjections of the author’s own writing. Additionally, some claims about Poe are placed very randomly in the middle of paragraphs with no evidence or sources.
Lastly, the synopsis gives the impression that the biography will provide some new information about Poe’s cause of death by adding fresh insight about how he lived. While it does point out general misconceptions and falsities that have shaped popular belief about the writer (and are still being taught in many schools), it is not what it claims to be. It does not offer any new insight into Poe’s life (unless a reader had never read anything about Poe before). It does not give any new information about the death of Poe. All A Mystery of Mysteries really does is rehash what has already been written about Poe before. One cannot shed new light on something by using old light.
My thanks to St. Martin's Press via NetGalley for the eARC, for which I willingly give my own, honest opinion.