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Historical Mysteries

An Unpardonable Crime, Andrew Taylor, Hyperion, $13.95.

My husband wouldn't read this book because Edgar Allan Poe is an actual character in it (the very same reason I can't bring myself to read Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen mysteries), but in actual fact Poe is not a large character and he's mostly only 10 years old as the story unfolds. Taylor definitely has the skills exhibited so effortlessly by the late Kate Ross and Bruce Alexander - those of vividly setting a scene - and he is also well able to come up with an extremely complicated plot. Unlike Ross and Alexander, however, I didn't find the complications of his plot especially added to the story, and while I enjoyed reading it I was disappointed in the ending. The enjoyable parts of the book are pretty significant, though - so draw your own conclusions.

The story is set in England in 1819, and the central character is an impoverished schoolteacher, Thomas Shield, whose charges include a young Edgar Allan Poe (then being raised in London by wealthy foster parents) and another young charge, Charles Frant, Edgar's best friend, who is suffering through a horrific first year at boarding school. His fond and beautiful mother Sophie had been reluctant to send him away; his father feels the experience will be good for him. Charles is called away from school when his wealthy uncle is lying on his deathbed; the uncle, owner of a bank run by Charles' father, is the lynchpin of the family - when he dies all hell breaks loose. Charles returns to school to be almost immediately be called back home because his father has been found murdered; the unlucky Mr. Shield is the one called on to identify the corpse. Mr. Shield is able to make a tentative identification based on some physical characteristics - Charles' father had died with his face smashed in, unrecognizable. This is a perfectly dandy set up for a good story, especially when it becomes apparent that the death of Charles' father also serves to uncover the complete failure of his family's bank. He and his mother are plunged into poverty and live on sufferance with Charles' lewd, old and wealthy uncle Carswall and his daughter Flora.

Sophie is placed in the unlucky position of being the love interest of Charles' randy uncle Carswall, and Mr. Shield is called upon to take both Charles and Edgar to the Carswall's county house over the Christmas school break. Mr. Shield is in the unlucky position of being attracted to both Sophie and Flora, and of being neither a complete servant nor a complete household equal; he is treated both ways at different times. The setting in this book is really the reason to read it - the characters are strong, and it completely transported me back to 1819 - I could feel the snow, the cold, drafty, but elegant manor, and the creaking of the carriages and the warmth of the fires upon coming inside. But Taylor sets this story against the larger story of the bank failure, a mysterious investor from America, and the emergence of Edgar's real father. All the threads tie together in an almost insanely complicated way, and when I reached the end of the book, while I was pleased to have made the acquaintance of these characters and spent some virtual time in 1819 England, I was left cold by the conclusion of the story, which (in my opinion) left an unnecessarily large thread dangling. Read it for the prose, the characters and the setting, though, and you won't be disappointed. Or, read Kate Ross' masterful The Devil in Music which has many of the same strengths, but possesses a plot resolution to die for. It's your call.

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