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A Mystery of Mysteries

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My first introduction to Edward Allen Poe was reading The Man Who was Poe by Avi. My dad had handed me the book to read having enjoyed both works of Avi and Poe.

As for this book. I love the cover. It reminds me of a hip poster at a cool coffee shop with a literary hero twist. The first few chapters were interesting and after reading them I was hopeful for the rest of the book. Unfortunately I found the majority of this book long winded with so much information that my interest weaned. The progression seemed to jump timelines to reference something else at times which I found confusing.

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A Mystery of Mysteries explores the life and death of Edgar Allan Poe. I learned some interesting tidbits about Poe's life and personality. Although the author presented detailed facts and suppositions about Poe's last few days alive I now have more questions then ever! I recommend reading this one whether or not you are a fan of Poe (and how isn't?).

**I received an electronic ARC from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review of this book.

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Ah, Philly’s dear boy! It’s true that his death is still more talked about than his life or works. Seriously, how did he die? Please, let’s start another investigation and figure this mystery out. Because even books about his life like this one starts with his death, talks little bit about his also interesting life (but disturbing in reminding you that he could be one of slave masters), and goes back to his death again.

Poe’s life started as series of unfortunate events as he lost his parents one after another and ended up in “foster” care. He was away from his siblings for some time and deprived of a life that could have been less depressing for him if his parents were alive. His artistic talents might be better used in theatre scene instead of writing horror.

If you like Poe boy, give this book a chance. You might find something that you didn’t know about him. It goes very quick without boring you with too many details.

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A Mystery of Mysteries is billed as a biography of Edgar Allan Poe. However, I would describe it as an amalgamation of quotes by other people around Poe and his life and loves. This opinion is supported by the sheer number of footnotes that are sprinkled throughout the book (over 200!) in a relatively short volume. I do appreciate that a lot of forensic analysis was referenced to present a compelling theory for Poe's death. I'm not sure that I would suggest this book to many of my friends unless they are exceptionally interested in reading the combined words of a lot of other writers and opinions about Poe's life and death.

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This book was fascinating. I love Edgar Allen Poe so naturally his life and death have always been interesting to me. This book really gives a lot of information I hadn’t read before.

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I’ve been a fan of Poe since I was a teenager taking his works to dramatic reading competitions. I didn’t consider myself to be more than a casual fan of Poe before I read this, but maybe I am more since I’ve studied a lot of his various works and his life to some degree as a part of my literature analysis. Still, there is much that I do not know and was intrigued by this work.

I found the timeline to be a bit jumpy. The parts are labeled with broad year spans that are sometimes overlapping. At one point I finished a chapter with Poe just married to Virginia only to start the next with him proposing to another woman, which had occurred during a different period of his life.

The chemical hair analysis information was extremely interesting, exposing some of the contaminants that were present in the remnants of Poe’s hair that have been saved historically. I enjoyed the scientific methodology and especially the speculation in the last chapter, but I felt like a lot of the information was presented in a flawed manner that assumed the reader bought into publicized stereotypes and hadn’t studied his works in relation to his life, which most of my literature classes did with most major authors. I was quite aware that he was an editorial critic and that his horror/macabre pieces do not make up the majority of his catalogue.

Recommended to the casual Poe fan that doesn’t know much about him, ie. just knows him as a drunkard horror writer. I wouldn’t recommend this to someone who has studied Poe except as a supplement to previously learned information.

Thank you to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for a copy provided for an honest review.

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"The real Poe considered himself first and foremost a poet. The real Poe was best known in his lifetime as first a tremendously tough critic, second a poet, and third as the author of tales of mystery and horror. Our perception of Poe has reversed that order."
“'Poe was no saint, and he wasn’t always easy to be around,' novelist Matthew Pearl said. 'He had difficulty with friendships. He could push people away who were genuinely fond of him and wanted to help him. He could be charming, courtly, witty, and gracious, but he also could be sensitive, petty, suspicious, jealous, and resentful. He wanted to be noticed and appreciated, but he had a difficult time with processing appreciation.'”

Edgar Allan Poe sure had plenty of challenges in his life. First came the death of both professional actor parents by the time he was three years old, then being raised in a home where the wife was eager to have him, but the husband resented his presence and overtly disliked him. His adult love life featured a string of romances that did not come to fruition, and others that left him mate-less after far too short a time. In addition, even the mother-figures in his life were short-lived. Is it any wonder that so much of his work centered on death, particularly the early demise of young women? But you probably knew that, or had an inkling. What you may not have known was that Poe was also a writer of comedies, of high-seas adventures, a balloon ride, pirates and treasure.

In A Mystery of Mysteries, Mark Dawidziak takes on the unenviable task of ferreting out how exactly Edgar Allan Poe died.

"It is, in fact, a double-barreled mystery. What was the cause of Poe’s death, and what happened to him during those missing days before he was found “in great distress” on the streets of Baltimore, wearing ill-fitting clothes that were not his own? Why did he look so disheveled, his hair unkempt, his face unwashed, and his eyes “lusterless and vacant”? Pale and alternately described as both cold to the touch and burning up with fever, Poe in his delirium held conversations with what resident physician Moran said were “spectral and imaginary objects on the wall.” Sound like the description of a character in one of his stories? It also sounds like a mystery worthy of Poe’s master detective (and the model for so many super sleuths to follow), C. Auguste Dupin."

How Poe came to die where and how he did is a long-standing mystery, well, the specifics of it, anyway. Theories abound, of course. There is little in the way of physical evidence. But the author works with what evidence there is and gives many of the extant theories a good going-over.

"Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7th, 1849. The doctor labeled his cause of death as “phrenitis” (inflammation of the brain) which was commonly used when the true cause of death was unknown. Because of these mysterious circumstances, and the persona of Poe, there is much speculation about the true manner of his death. There are over 26 published theories on his demise, so far." - from The Poe Museum

It is clear that he was in poor health in his final days, that he frequently drank to excess, that he suffered greatly from the loss of his beloved, and that his body was failing. He had struggled with alcohol since he was in school, and the behavior that is attributed to him in his final days fits well with a liver failing because of alcoholism or liver disease of another sort. But that is not the only suspect. He rarely had extended spells in which he was not struggling to get by, so add to his health-challenges the ongoing stress of poverty, with a not infrequent scarcity of sufficient food. He was also afflicted with his share of the widespread diseases of his time. The specifics of where he was on this day or that strikes me as uninteresting, in the absence of concrete evidence of murder most foul, or interference by aliens or time travelers, And even were there such a dark undertaking underway, a bit of patience would have seen to that task unaided.

I confess that while I have read a reasonable portion of the better-known Poe works, I have little exposure to his lesser-known works, (there are links to some of these in EXTRA STUFF) and little knowledge of his biography. I suspect that most folks reading this are either in a similar situation, or can empathize with those of us who are.

This is a book, rich as it is with details of the great writer’s life, that welcomes the phrase “you may not have known.” It does not delve into literary analysis of Poe’s oeuvre, beyond the obvious links between his lived experience and the subjects he included in his writing. It follows his struggles from when he was an unloved orphan, then a difficult, if brilliant student. You may not have known that he was a hale, athletic specimen in his youth, and even well into adulthood. Or that the moustache which we always see in images of him was an addition that did not take place until late in his all-too-brief life.

He is seen as the inventor of the modern mystery. You probably knew that. But you may not have known that even the Ur detective, Sherlock Holmes, was inspired by a character written by Poe, and is credited as such by Arthur Conan Doyle. You may not have known that Poe is seen as the inventor of criminal profiling by none other than the originator of the FBI’s profiling division. You may not have known that he made a national name for himself as a literary critic, a perceptive and harsh one, working for magazines.

Poe was not just a superstar of a writer, but a legend in his own mind, which made him a particularly high-maintenance employee, leaving him constantly struggling to keep body and soul together, constantly pleading for work and assistance. He perceived himself as an outsider, which he was, denied the material comforts and the social access granted his peers.

"Poe scholar Steve Medeiros puts it more vividly: 'If you could look through the peephole and see who was knocking, and could see that it was Poe, you wouldn’t answer the door, because he would want something. As much of a genius as he is and as charming as he could be, he could also be a real pain in the ass.'”

Dawidziak does an outstanding job of detailing for us the trials and tribulations of Poe’s endless quest for for some sort of familial bliss, whether primarily familial or romantic. It seems clear that he spent his life trying to gain the support and affection of the family life that was denied him as a child. His loneliness was a lifelong condition, even though interrupted by periods of happiness.

Poe married Virginia Liza Clemm when she was thirteen. (He had first met her when she was six) He was twenty-seven. But he called her “Sissy” and it is not known if their relationship was conjugal or exclusively familial. He referred to Virginia’s mother as “Muddy” and related to her as if she were his mother, as well as Virginia’s. Denied the comfort of an actual, warm, supportive domestic upbringing as a child, constructing one may have been his primary motivation for the marriage.

You may not have known that Poe was hardly a dour figure. In fact he could be very charming, coming across as well bred, if not necessarily well-dressed. He displayed excellent licks at readings of his own materials, and had great appeal and success as a lecturer. Maybe having two actors for parents had something to do with that. Even athletic as a young man, despite his privations.

He published only fifty poems or so. Of the forms he worked in, this was the one he loved most. You may not have known that he tried his hand at the novel as well, but was advised not to quit his day job after finally managing one. Try a shorter form, he was told, and he managed that transition quite nicely, writing some of the most famous short stories in literary history.

What killed Poe? Not gonna give anything away here, but really, what difference does it make? What is worth caring about here is the insight one can get into Poe’s work from Mark Dawidziak’s fascinating detailing of his life, his deep dive into a troubled, but ultimately artistically triumphant, life. If you were ever curious about Edgar Allan Poe, about what his life was like, about what drove him, you can check out A Mystery of Mysteries and redirect that gap in your knowledge into the bin marked Nevermore.

"Most people think of Poe as a gloomy pessimist, but, in reality, he was the eternal optimist. No matter what life threw at Poe, he always was kind of like Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield, sure that something was going to turn up. He always believed that. He never gives up.”

Review posted – March 10, 2023

Publication date – February 14, 2023

For the complete review, with images and links, please head over to my site:

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When I was a child my mother bought me this little red book at the grocery store. In the 1960's a shopper could get a small edition of a classic book for fifty cents or so if a certain price was met in grocery purchase. That book was short stories by Edgar Allan Poe with The Tell-Tale Heart and The Pit and the Pendulum for two of its' offerings. Over the decades there have been many things to keep the horror writer's reputation going, along with misinformation that the man was a mentally sick individual, destroyed by grief.
I received a copy of this book, A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe by Mark Dawidziak, from the publisher and NetGalley. This is my own unsolicited opinion about the book.
I found the information that was gathered quite interesting. This is a study and compilation of materials from the days of Poe to interviews of writers, national park rangers, scholars, an FBI agent/profiler and biographers from this century. It is well written to keep the story flowing as it goes back and forth between time periods of Poe's life and last days.
Each reader will come to his or her own conclusion while reading this book. I learned that Poe considered himself a poet first and foremost. He was really a genius, able to switch back and forth between genres, sometimes just to make an income to get by. He was a critic and editor. There is so much to learn from the book, and I appreciate the writer more after having read this. I love that Poe was a writer that made a distinct path for horror writing, and he also created the detective story genre. He was respected by Charles Dickens and appreciated by Sherlock Holmes creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.
"It was Poe who taught the possibility of making a detective story a work of literature." A.C. Doyle
The possibilities of what could have caused his early death are discussed. There is a sadness in the mystery of that, yet, it could have easily been something he could have written up in a chilling story. He certainly was maligned by a jealous colleague who immediately wrote an obituary for him. Poe's death was even used by the attending doctor which is irksome to me.
If you are interested in Poe as a writer or poet, this book is well worth the read.
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It took me a while (several months!) to read this book. I poured over every word, every sentence. I have read some of Poe's works, but as I learned more about him and things he wrote, I took time to find them and read those things I hadn't even known about a swell as reread works that I had.

I know that in this world we will never know the entire true story, but I have my own theory after reading this book as to how Poe spent his last days. The author did an excellent job of presenting conflicting theories. He probably did much more research than any of the people whose theories he presented for us to consider.

This was so well written and researched. The only problem I had was sometimes keeping the timeline straight as the author went back and forth in different chapters.

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I didn't know much about Poe and his life so this was an interesting introduction to his history for me. I didn't really enjoy the dual timeline aspect of this book, though. It was confusing whether I had already read a section or not.

Obviously we still don't know the reason for Poe's death, but I did learn more about him than I had known before. For one thing, Baltimore claims him yet he lived a lot of his life in Richmond, VA, Boston, and overseas.

A nice introduction to Poe and the mysteries surrounding his death, but no real answers so I'd recommend it for intermediate to moderate Poe fans.

I received a preview copy and am giving an honest review.

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What we know about Edgar Allan Poe’s final days comes across like the setup tease of a present-day thriller: an unknown man, apparently drunk, turns up semiconscious and zombie-like on a midnight street in Baltimore. He’s unkempt and dirty, in cheap, ill-fitting clothes. There’s something off about that; the clothes clearly belong to another.

He’s recognized, and a relative is called in to take charge. This relative coldly demurs: My nephew is drunk yet again. He’s all yours. Send him to the hospital.

There, the patient hovers between comatose stillness and garbled conversations with the blank walls of his room. When he comes to — in fits and starts over the next few days and nights — he manages a cogent exchange or two with the attending physician and his wife. But he sheds no light on the days leading up to his current plight. And as for the strange clothing, he’s at a loss to explain.

Then the patient suffers a stunning setback. After crying out through the night for an unknown “Reynolds,” he dies. The doctor is convinced that alcohol is not involved; some other affliction is to blame.

The perplexing demise of Poe, abuzz with bizarre details, may be enticing enough in its own right, but strange occurrences — suspicious, creepy, or downright melodramatic — seemed to bedevil him at every turn. Mark Dawidziak chronicles these lowlights in A Mystery of Mysteries, his brief biography of the 19th-century poet, essayist, and master of a nascent genre, the short story.

Dawidziak focuses first on Poe’s death, then backtracks, attempting to unpack and explain the curious events of his weirdly troubled life. Orphaned as a toddler, Poe loses his beloved foster mother while still a teenager, only to have his newly well-off foster father, with a Dickensian flourish, cut him off financially.

Dawidziak describes Poe’s crushing hand-to-mouth poverty with particular vigor. He’s forced to drop out of the recently established University of Virginia, enlists in the U.S. Army for a time, performs with distinction, then quits, again for financial reasons. Spinning off on another pipe dream, Poe tries to trade up through an appointment to West Point but soon abandons his place there, deliberately washing out after only a few months. As Dawidziak suggests, for Poe, it’s all shifting success schemes and blunted hopes, all desperate, youthful confusion.

Barely into his 20s, Poe then turns to editorial jobs, writing on the side. There’s not much money in this game, but there is a measure of celebrity as he finds his métier first in literary criticism and then in gothic horror inlaid in a pioneering frame. Aping Byron — and maybe the sullen, avenging Hamlet — Poe adopts black garb, and the brooding, malevolent narrators of his tales emerge, vicious to the bone. So, too, does his coolly rational detective, C. Auguste Dupin, the very first in a following horde of our culture’s literary and cinematic gumshoes, from Holmes to Marple to Spade to Starling.

But for all of Poe’s reputational gains, the penury persists. He moves in with his aunt, her young daughter, and his shut-in grandmother, living off the old woman’s pension as an Army widow, contributing support where he can. He’s found a happy menage at last, but not without a cringeworthy development: He weds his cousin Virginia, who is 13.

Dawidziak notes the buzz of scandal this creates but also cites a Poe authority or two who suggests the marriage was a platonic match. Judge for yourself here, but Dawidziak’s sources generally affirm that Eddy and Virginia’s was a deep and lasting love. When Virginia dies 11 years later, he is shattered, and the unnerving decline that marks his last two years begins.

Though bereaved, Poe is bleakly inspired to pursue a few wealthy widows with the aim of achieving comfortable domesticity. Dawidziak identifies three of them. If this revelation seems to underscore Poe’s unsteady state of mind in these moments, try this one: Only a few months before his demise, a bedraggled Poe turns up at the door of a friend, a Philadelphia artist. He tells the friend that three men were shadowing him on the train. He overheard them plotting to kill him, so he gave them the slip by jumping off midway through. The skeptical friend takes Poe in.

Dawidziak produces one stalwart academic who fingers the trio of brigands as the brothers of one of Poe’s matrimonial prospects, but most of his other authorities pooh-pooh the whole episode as hallucination, primly slipping it into the crazy file.

This bio’s mode of presentation is almost as striking as its subject’s life in that it departs, in the interest of drama, from the standard birth-to-death progression of the genre. Dawidziak’s chapters proceed in pairs, with short narratives from Poe’s final year alternating with flashbacks to significant moments from his life.

Equally distinctive is Dawidziak’s presentation of his research. He quotes sources in a unique way, supplying some citations from published Poe scholarship, but more often opting for “live” quotes from commentators interviewed directly. This produces a documentary effect akin to magazine journalism or even a podcast. It’s more au courant but might unnerve some purists. Still, casual readers may find it vibrant as they trace the eventful saga of the man who’s arguably influenced today’s popular literature, from Ruth Rendell to Stephen King, more than any other

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(DNFing at around the 40% mark, may come back to it one day...)

I wanted this nonfiction account of Poe's untimely death to deliver on what it promised: mystery and intrigue. Rather, this just seemed like a textbook rehashing of other insights/interviews from other writers and their novels about Poe and his relatively short life. Did I learn some things? Yes. Were they interesting? Somewhat. Was the way the facts were compiled and presented to me compelling? Not at all. I just grew too bored with this to continue it through to the end right now. It's not terrible, it's just not that great.

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I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

A Mystery of Mysteries. The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe by Mark Dawidziak is a new biography of the brilliant Edgar Allan Poe. Best remembered for his beautifully creepy poems and short horror stories, he was also a humorist, a detective story innovator, and a literary critic.

Rather than starting as biographies typically do, with the subject’s early life, this book begins with the questions surrounding the mysterious circumstances of Poe’s death. Each chapter is introduced with more details about Poe’s last months (creeping up to his last weeks to his last days), then the bulk of each chapter walks the reader through Poe’s life chronologically.

This format keeps the tension high as theories about the cause of Poe’s death are presented. The difficulty is not that there are no possibilities but that there are too many. Some (like murder and rabies) are discarded, but most of the various illness theories remain in the running. Dawidziak has his favorite, explained in the last chapter, but admits that even this can never be proved.

Edgar Allan Poe did not only have a mysterious death. He also had a short, productive, difficult, and brilliant life. A good deal of mythology has sprung up around him. Dawidziak debunks many of the myths. (Such as he was a habitual drunkard, a laudanum addict, and as gloomy and morose as the characters in his horror stories.) But debunking the myths does not make the man any less fascinating. If you’re interested in a quick study of Poe, this is a great place to start.

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I have great respect for Poe and his work, so it was interesting to learn about the man himself. I hadn't known of the struggles in his personal life and relationships or the difficulty in getting his work published. Another artist who was underappreciated in his own time.

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In A Mystery of Mysteries, Mark Dawidziak sets the tone for his search for the cause of death of Edgar Allan Poe before he begins his narrative with a beginning quote from Poe’s works:
The breeze – the breath of God – is still
And the mist upon the hill
Shadowy – shadowy – yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token –
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!

He begins his account with Poe’s passing from this life on an appropriately stormy night on October 7, 1849 when he was only forty years old, adding that nobody knows the precise cause. He spends the rest of the book alternating between the last months of Poe’s life and his decease. Speculation about causes include syphilis, alcoholism, rabies, murder, or some combination of factors. The circumstances of his death would be appropriate for one of his own horror stories. The author takes a look at the many accounts and assesses the reliability of widely divergent pictures of Poe himself as well as his death. While a neat conclusion is missing, the information will fascinate fans of Poe’s work. I found the time switches distracting but probably could have solved that by taking closer note to the dates at the beginning of each chapter.

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Edgar Allan Poe’s death continues to be one of the great mysteries, as there are multiple theories on the actual cause. However, we tend to lose sight of an even a greater mystery, his life.

It’s difficult to establish a truly accurate story of Poe’s life, as not only did those who knew him exaggerate and contradict themselves, but Poe himself did the same. While author Mark Dawidziak explores these contradictions, he more importantly provides a captivating story of what we do know about Poe and the essence of his life and last days.

Readers will learn to separate the poet and author from his narrators. The fact that he wrote with a “satirical edge” and had a great sense of humor doesn’t fit with the myth. Neither do some of the writers who probably influenced him.

Could Poe have been the originator of the modern detective story and a major influence in the true-crime genre? Dawidziak gives context to some of his greatest works, which helps to answer the above question. He also gives strong evidence on why Poe is appreciated more today than when he was alive.

We also learn what famous contemporary writers think of him, as well as to what lengths historians have gone through in attempts to get into his mind. Dawidziak details his meetings with Charles Dickens and explores why he had such animosity towards Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Though all of this is fascinating, I found delving into his daily life the most captivating. We learn about the complex personality of this outsider, who often acted as his own worst enemy. This is also accomplished by learning about those close to him.

One could say that "A Mystery of Mysteries" appeals to a niche audience. However, I must admit that I am not a huge fan of Poe’s work. Still, I was mesmerized by this analysis, and learning about one of America’s greatest writers.

(This review will be posted on UnderratedReads on 3/1/23)

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Edgar Allen Poe is probably, no definitely, the single historical American author who universally captures the interest of readers today. There is something about his stories that just stick with you decades after reading them as a teen in American Lit class. The lub dub of The Tell-Tale Heart continues to beat strongly long after Poe has been dead and buried. But what stilled this much-revered heart of American Lit? The medical mystery of Poe's sudden demise at age 40 has never been solved. As a Poe fan and pharmacist, this unsolved medical mystery is simply poetical and is fitting for the end of his fascinating yet tragically short life.

A Mystery of Mysteries is a fascinating delve into Poe's life. A well-researched biography, the book may read a little heavy for casual readers, but for those with more of an academic bent, it tells a wonderful story of his life and demise. Using dual timelines, A Mystery of Mysteries, alternates between the time of Poe's death with a chronological account of his earlier life until the stories converge at the end. I appreciated the author's interviews and incorporation of modern-day Poe influencees as evidence of Poe's life after life. So few have achieved Poe's degree of literary immortality and it was also enjoyable to reflect upon and compare the impact of his literary peers at the time.

Thank you to St. Martin's Press and #NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review this ARC.

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A Mystery of Mysteries by Mark Dawidziak dispels the caricature of Edgar Allan Poe to show the real person. It turns that that the real Edgar Allan Poe is way more interesting than the caricature. Dawidziak’s biography attempts to reframe the mystery surrounding Poe’s death while enlightening readers to the oddities of Poe’s life. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: The publisher provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Any and all opinions that follow are mine alone.

Review: A Mystery of Mysteries by Mark Dawidziak

Biographies of famous historical figures face the continual problem of how to separate themselves from prior published biographies. For example, how much research has been done into the life of Edgar Allan Poe? Quite a bit. So, how does a writer approach Poe as a subject for a new biography? One way is to present the most up to date information and scholarship in a format that’s new and exciting. In A Mystery of Mysteries by Mark Dawidziak, two competing timelines tell the story of Edgar Allan Poe’s life and the mystery of his death. Dawadziak seeks to reframe that mystery, and in doing so, he has to look at the whole of Poe’s life.

Dawidziak begins his biography of Edgar Allan Poe with the man’s death. This feels natural and fitting for the father of American gothic horror. Poe’s life could have been one of his own stories, and in the time unaccounted for prior to his death, the mystery of a life cut short looms. It calls to fans of Poe. What happened to him? Where was he? Dawidziak seeks to answer that unanswerable question. To do this, he consults experts on Poe’s life, literature, and criticism. Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849; yet, Dawidziak pursues the story as rigorously – maybe even more so – as any investigative journalist. His passion and thoroughness would almost make it seem like he’s working an open case instead of looking at a death prior to the American Civil War.

Dawidziak structures his book with alternating chapters. One section focus on the events leading up to his disappearance, and the other provides an overall biography. I liked this structure. It kept things fresh. Rather than reading a linear biography, the reader jumps around in time. This gave it a mystery novel feel; though, I didn’t think the two timelines came together smoothly. Still, it was an excellent structuring that gave motion and a sense of urgency to the biographical events.

No one who reads this book will accuse Dawidziak of skimping on the research. His preparation to write this thing was shocking to me in its thoroughness. He read. He interviewed. He researched. I’m not sure thoroughness is the appropriate word for how prepared Dawidziak was to write this novel. I can only wonder at all the info that didn’t make it into the book. Whether it’s the greeter at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, the docent of the Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore, quotes from writers like Stephen King, excerpt from the works of Poe’s scholars, or interviews with Poe scholars, there is no lacking in supporting information. (On a personal note, I loved seeing the addition of Matthew Pearl as resource about Poe. Pearl wrote The Poe Shadow, which is an excellent book in its own right.) Dawidziak’s own interest in Poe comes through the page in the depth and breadth of resources he includes for readers.

Poe, the Man, not the Caricature

This is the first Poe biography I read, and I was astonished to find out that the Poe I thought I knew was wrong. I pictured Poe as a broody Goth who belonged on foggy moors rather than the streets of New York. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Dawidziak paints a portrait of an active and adventurous man. For a time, Poe joined the military and was quite popular. He spent time at West Point and was quite popular. While he was born in Boston, he considered himself a Southern gentleman. He’s often associated with Baltimore, but his preferred home was Richmond, Virginia.

I knew he wrote poetry and mysteries in addition to the horror that he’s best known for, but I didn’t know he was a critic. Apparently he was a scathing one at that, whether he actually read the work being critiqued or not. Being a critic myself, of course this interested me. It seems as if criticism is where he made most of his money while alive. Poe is the first American writer to make a living writing full time, as meager as that living was. To think that criticism helped provide a living is surprising to me. I can’t help but wonder if he obsessed over the same things in his criticism that he obsessed over in his own fiction.

Tragic Character Flaws

Dawidziak points out how often Poe was his own worst enemy. Poe wrecks his own prospects in such a way that it’s like he’s a character straight out of fiction himself. He has the tragic character flaw of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. He is constantly asking for money to support him, and yet in doing so he’ll often be as combative or abrasive as he is manipulative. His lifelong battle with alcohol often rears its head when things are going well for him. But whatever tragic flaws he possessed, none of them seemed to get in the way of his writing. Poe was a machine who wrote and wrote and wrote. His output and its lasting impact upon literature is astonishing when we learn he died at the age of 40. While his writing was appreciated in his lifetime, no one could have guessed its legacy. One wishes that he could have gotten a glimpse at what his work means to the world, similar to the ending of Vincent and the Doctor.

Poe's Women

Throughout his life, Poe experience loss after loss. It seems as if the loss of the women in his life hit him the hardest. His mother Elizabeth died in 1811 when Edgar was 2. Jane Stanard, mother to his friend Robert Craig and whose memory inspired To Helen, passed about a year after meeting Edgar, but in her, he had found a kindred spirit. He loved but never married Sarah Elmira Royster, and he ‘lost’ her to another man. His wife and cousin, Virginia Clem, died when she was 24. With all this loss, is it a wonder why he wrote so much of tragic women? He doesn’t write women with much agency in his stories; they seem to be the focus of tragedy. Dawidziak paints his interactions with women as tragic. The loss of his mother and the chronic illness of his caretaker, Fanny Allan, had lasting impacts. How could they not? He seemed a deeply Romantic person, whose view of love as tragic would fit right in with any of his horrors.

Dawidziak’s writing about Poe’s relationship to women is enlightening and, with regards to his cousin, creepy. Dawidziak doesn’t judge Poe for this relationship, or if he does, it doesn’t come through on the page. Nonetheless, it’s a creepy relationship in and of itself. Dawidziak is careful to point out that it isn’t understood whether it was a marriage like we think of marriages. Poe regarded Virginia as his idealized soulmate.


Mark Dawidziak’s A Mystery of Mysteries is the Poe biography I needed to read. It humanized this giant of American letters by giving me a portrait of who the man was rather than the caricature that exists in popular culture. Dawidziak’s structuring of the alternating timelines gives a mystery novel feel to this investigation. A Mystery of Mysteries had me glued to the page wondering if by chance Dawidziak had found the answer to Poe’s ultimate mystery. Highly recommended.

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So much mystery and mystique around Poe's death and a three-day disappearance that occurred in his life. This book sheds some light on different aspects of his life. I have always been a fan of Edgar Allen Poe, so I enjoyed reading this biography of his life.

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I get the impression this is best for Poe die hards, though I also wonder how much new information it contains. The chapters are slanted towards Poe's life as opposed to the mysterious circumstances of his death, and those chapters are organized by years. As a result, they take on the quality of a list (this happened, then this happened, then this happened) without greater narrative or organizing effect. Dawidziak's embrace of our inability to know all the facts as well as his acknowledgment that myth often reshapes our relationship to the truth are admirable. But does it lead to a satisfying book? One could debate...

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