Maybe it’s a symptom of the weariness of the mystery genre that so many writers now do historical mysteries. It could be simply that this is an excellent moment for historical fiction of any kind, or it may be a sign that the form of the murder mystery is just about exhausted, and now has to be goosed up by the historical content to become viable. Or at least, not to bore its writers. Andrew Taylor — and why isn’t he better known here in the US? — is prolific, talented, and, it would seem, intellectually restless. No cranking out endless series with one detective and a cast of quirky sidekicks. Nope — this time he’s dragged poor little Edgar Allan Poe into the mix.
An Unpardonable Crime is really only tangentially about Poe, who is merely a child at a small school outside of London in this book. He is a near-doppelganger for another boy whose role is much more important. But Taylor is a good enough writer so that, having invoked the creepiness of Poe’s work, he mines it for effects and themes (burial, doubles, the undead). The plot itself is pretty conventional. Thomas Shield, the narrator, is the classic liminal character, educated enough to pass as a gentleman, but possessing no power or money and thus meriting no consideration. So Shield is almost invisible: he can can go everywhere, hear everything. Little Edgar Allan is the friend of Charles Frant at the school where Shield teaches. Frant’s rich, handsome father Henry is involved in banking, while his lovely mother represents the unattainable woman Shield adores. Henry Frant disappears and a body is found, with mangled face and hands. Is it Henry? Was he involved in the banking collapse? What is the identity of the tall stranger with the blue glasses and the unplaceable accent? Do we need to worry about the impeccably correct black Canadian Salutation Harmwell? Why is Mrs. Johnson found drowned in an ice house wearing men’s clothing? (I’m not actually sure I ever sorted that out.) And where did that severed finger come from?
Lots of questions, many of them sinister. Lots of great period detail. Taylor is quite fond of squalor. Since Shield is the narrator, the voice is flavored with the locutions of 1819. But I think what I appreciated most was the gloomy romantic-horror aspect of it all. Let’s not forget that Poe, with “The Murders in the rue Morgue,” can be said to have launched the mystery genre. An Unpardonable Crime pays homage to Poe’s writing. While the fictional world is internally consistent, and thus satisfying, it’s also crafted with enough showiness so that you appreciate the author’s virtuosity. He’s having fun “doing” Poe. You have fun reading him.