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Historical Mysteries

The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and The Invention of Murder, Daniel Stashower, Berkley, $15.00.

Since I'm a well known Poe freak and afficionado of true crime, Stashower had me at the title, and I'm pleased to report that the rest of the book lived up to my expectations.

In her day Mary Rogers was a well known figure, a humbled member of the upper classes who was reduced to selling cigars in a New York tobacco emporium, the crafty store owner knowing that a fetching face and fine figure would attract male clientele. (Robin, of course, serves a similar function here at Aunt Agatha's.) Her employment was a sign of a changing social environment in which a woman could have a casual social relationship with men without being a member of the demi-monde, and her fame an indication of the novelty of her position.

As a consequence of this notoriety, Mary's subsequent unsolved murder was front page news , and the same relaxed mores that allowed her to wait on men also permitted the stuffiest newspapers to delve into the morbid details in ways that would have been unthinkable even a few years earlier.

Like Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, this vintage crime is presented alongside another narrative, in this case the short and tragic life of Edgar Allan Poe. The narratives intersect when Poe decides to follow up his seminal detective tale "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" with another in which his protagonist C. Auguste Dupin would use his fantastic powers of ratiocination (and by extension Poe's own) to solve a lightly fictionalized version of an infamously unsolved crime. Poe called his story "The Mystery of Marie Roget," and in Stashower's deft reportage, the subsequent collision of truth and fiction makes for unexpected twists and high drama.

Over the years the relative fame and reputations of Mary Rogers and Edgar Allan Poe have waxed and waned, but today it may safely be said that the latter is firmly established in the literary pantheon while the former has slipped into obscurity. With impressive scholarship and analysis Stashower manages to make both his threads strong and compelling, weaving a captivating fabric that highlights the almost forgotten victim and stitching a new perspective around the renowned writer. (Jamie)

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