The Poet by Michael Connelly

I’m a big Edgar Allan Poe fan, in fact, I have his picture on a file cabinet to my left and often look over at him during the day, musing on what his life must have been like. I love his dark writings, I feel a kinship to his melancholy approach to life. The pureness of his writing, its cadence and imagery, has always spoken to me more effectively than any other writer.

When I was given a mystery novel which purported to use Edgar Allan Poe’s writings in its theme, I was reluctant, at first, to read it. It seemed an insult to him, to the craft of mystery writing, to the expertise apparent in almost everything Poe has ever written. After all, how could a mere 20th century novel (this book was written in 1996, published by Little, Brown and Company) capture Poe’s brooding style, the grainy shadows of his descriptions, the sense of being trapped in a musty, forgotten well on a plantation forgotten by man and time?

Because the person who gave me the book was a dear friend, I forced myself to open it. I’m glad I did.

The Poet, by Michael Connelly, an Edgar Award winning author, begins, “Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional reputation on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker — somber and sympathetic about it when I’m with the bereaved, a skilled craftsman with it when I’m alone.”

And so the mystery begins. Some bizarre deaths that ultimately lead to the killing of a few policemen has a local precinct riled up (as if the killing of the average citizen is an ordinary kind of thing). Jack McEvoy, newspaper reporter, gets drawn into the investigation after his brother Sean, a cop, dies a mysterious death the precinct labels suicide.

McEvoy won’t accept that degradation…that insult. He is sure his brother would never do such a thing — never leave behind a beautiful, pregnant wife. As he proceeds to investigate the crime, against the police chief’s wishes (some of the book is standard mystery fare, one comes to expect that today) McEvoy uncovers the Poe angle…recognizing a snippet of a poem left at the crime scene as the work of Poe.

The Poe angle continues throughout the book, with more snippets left at more crime scenes. The involvement of the FBI, which does its best to cut McEvoy out at every twist and turn, only makes him determined. Of course, as a reporter, he knows his way around tight places. It’s McEvoy’s uncovering of the Poe angle that leads to identifying the murderer as “The Poet.”

I enjoyed the story, found a few surprises here and there, but the best part, of course, was the Poe angle. This book has a standard mystery plotline, it’s written mostly in first person, which helps the reader identify with McEvoy’s frustrations and desire to put his brother’s reputation to right. There are some chapters in third person, written by the killer.

Suspense is built by using stanzas of Poe’s work (work I did not know about, have never seen before, and which made the book worth the read to me) adding that touch of confusion to the mystery. I quote two of them here, each attached to a different murder:

“In visions of the dark night,
I have dreamed of joy departed,
But a waking dream of life and light
Hath left me broken-hearted.”

“By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reins upright,
I have reached these lands but newly,
From an ultimate dim Thule —
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE — out of TIME.”

I read this mystery novel not for the twisted horror begat by a mind crawling with maggots, nor did I find the plotline particularly impressive, although I was thrown off towards the end; no, the pleasure in the reading of this book was in discovering the unknown pieces of Poe’s work. For that, I thank Michael Connelly. His writing is somewhat more mature in style than many modern day mystery writers, which helped keep my interest, beyond my eagerness to uncover more of Poe writings.

Readers into mystery novels should enjoy the book as it has a smooth flow with plenty of gore, a minor bit of sex, some plot twists designed to be red herrings, and that prerequisite romance between the protagonist(McEvoy) and the beautiful antagonist (an FBI agent named Rachel). Connelly writes in a more mature style than some mystery writers I’ve read recently. He doesn’t treat the reader as a kindergartener, but expects you to be intelligent, fairly well-read yourself, and ready to suspend any disbelief in the extraordinary.

Do not expect to see this story at theaters near you anytime soon. I believe James Patterson (Along Came a Spider) has the movie rights to this genre pretty tightly wrapped up. But… I could be wrong.