A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe by Mark Dawidziak #NetGalley #eARCReview #BookReview #February2023Books #NewBooks

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.

Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe (Amazon US) (Amazon UK) (Audible). I read Poe in high school, and I think I’ve seen every big screen adaptation of his works, but I’ve never revisited Poe or knew much about his life or death. It seems no one really knows much about his mysterious death at the age of 40, but Mark Dawidziak tries to get some answers in this book. I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Told in dual timelines, the reader alternates between the last few months of Edgar Allan Poe’s life, and what led him there, starting with his birth. I can’t say I liked the format much, as used to dual timelines as I am. For this subject, it didn’t seem to work. What would have been better is a straight biography, and then a closer examination into Poe’s last days. Instead we have a disjointed account of his final days, which does no service to the story.

However, what is presented is compelling enough. The author tries to cover every myth about Poe and clear up any misconceptions people may have had. You see, most people think of Poe as a gloomy type of broken character based upon his most famous works and the last few daguerreotypes taken of him. But for 20 years, Poe was always an optimist, never letting lack of work get him down. Along the way, he became a well-regarded literary critic as well as an author in his own right.

Poe’s problem seems to be that he had a very low tolerance for alcohol and during his adult life was known to have benders. That’s not saying he was an alcoholic, he just had trouble handling even one glass, and could go years without a drink. However, you would think that someone who is self-aware of how alcohol affects them and all the trouble he got into when he drank would avoid it, so maybe he was an alcoholic. The author doesn’t think so, but I’m less inclined to agree.

Poe’s success as a writer came late in life, yet wasn’t thought seriously enough in America to bring him riches. Nowadays Poe is considered a writing genius, the father of the detective story, and a master of the horror genre, but not so during his lifetime. His mysterious death just added to the mystique.

The book is peppered with interviews from Poe scholars, museum curators, authors like Stephen King who were influenced by him, and medical detectives. Currently, therqe are more than 20 theories of how Poe died, and the author explores some of the most popular ones to disprove them or make them seem plausible. Some of the theories are “hypoglycemia, rabies, diabetes, tuberculosis, alcoholism, encephalitis, heart disease, influenza, epilepsy, liver disease, or meningeal inflammation due to viral or bacterial infection.” The author’s conclusion, based on his conversations with all his interviewees is that Poe died of tuberculosis or tubercular meningitis.

The book was very interesting if you’re like me and hadn’t done any research on his life or death. Recommended for fans of Poe, true crime mysteries, and biographies.

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