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As a young reader, I read and thoroughly enjoyed some of Avi's novels. I fully expected to love this one.
There's a lot to recommend it: a genuinely baffling mystery with the fate of a young boy and his sister hanging in the balance, plenty of atmospheric settings in one of my very favorite cities (Providence), and a clever tribute to Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, the first great literary detective.
There's even an extended sequence that takes place in St. John's Churchyard and the home of Sarah Helen Whitman. A terrific use of real locations!
What I found disturbing was Avi's portrayal of Poe. I realize Poe was a troubled man - and an opinionated one who was unsparing of others' feelings when, for example, wearing his critic's hat, and at times a petty one, too - but this hopelessly drunken and self-obsessed Poe lacks any trace of the deep well of humanity evident in his fiction. He is thoroughly unlikeable and at times genuinely cruel to the young protagonist Edmund, with whose destitute and lonely plight Poe should have identified and sympathized. He is brilliant when behaving as Dupin, but he lacks even the intellectual engagement to take some delight in his remarkable acts of ratiocination.
In short, if this had been my first introduction to Poe as a young reader, I might have avoided his fiction simply due to his unrelentingly unpleasant portrayal here. Every time the author set up a moment of genuine pathos regarding Poe - which should have been easy, given that Poe appears to be half-mad - he pulled back. This Poe isn't pitiable or wrecked: he's a despicable waste and quite nearly a villain.
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