|Harold Schechter: The Mask of Red Death|
Ballantine (Hardcover), ISBN 0345448413
In The Mask of Red Death, his latest Edgar Allan Poe Mystery, Harold Schechter brings the reader to New York City in the summer of 1845. Edgar Allan Poe struggles to earn a living as an author and literary critic, but into the center of his world come the tales of two girls, brutally murdered. When Poe himself stumbles upon the body of a third victim, he begins to investigate possible connections between the three murders.
Into the midst of the investigation comes Kit Carson, newly arrived from the west and on the trail of the man who killed his wife. Poe quickly deduces that they seek the same killer, and the race begins to find the murderer before he strikes again.
In an author's note at the front of the book, Schechter explains that the novel was inspired by the true story of John Johnson, a nineteenth-century frontiersman who brutally slaughtered scores of Native Americans. Schechter fills his book with such historical facts, from the life story of Johnson and the scalping practices of various cultures to the "Doctors Riot" that engulfed New York City in the years before Poe's time. Much of this information, combined with Schechter's elaborately described settings, creates a rich sense of New York City in the 1840s.
However, at times I found myself wishing for a little less information. Schechter's viewpoints on serial killers across cultures amounted to a sermon and could have been handled in a less didactic manner.
Despite the sermon, the book unfolds as a fast paced, intelligent mystery. Schechter gives enough false leads and twists to keep the reader guessing until the end. Poe comes across as an idiosyncratic but likable sleuth with all the ego necessary for a literary genius living in near poverty. His moments of vanity add the right touch of humor. But Kit Carson by far steals the show, with his tendency for understatement and concern for those around him. The combination of historical fact, likable characters, literary allusions and puzzling clues results in an entertaining thriller.
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