Friday, October 27, 2006
Book details Poe's take on murder case
By BEN NUCKOLS, Associated Press WriterFri Oct 27, 12:45 PM ET
Like many boys with a vim for literature, Daniel Stashower was drawn to the macabre short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. But he was flummoxed by "The Mystery of Marie Roget," one of Poe's detective tales featuring intellectual amateur sleuth C. Auguste Dupin.
"It didn't make any sense," Stashower said.
Stashower, who grew up to turn his love for detective fiction into a career as a mystery novelist and a biographer of Arthur Conan Doyle, never got the strange digressions of "Marie Roget" out of his head. His curiosity about the story has now led to his latest book, "The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder."
Marie Roget was based on a real murder victim, Mary Rogers, a young woman who beguiled the men she served from behind the counter of a New York cigar shop. Rogers disappeared on July 25, 1841. Three days later, her body was found floating in the Hudson River with a lace cord tied around her neck.
Her murder, which was never solved, created a media frenzy, and when Poe's story was serialized in Ladies' Companion magazine in late 1842 and early 1843, the case was fresh in readers' minds.
"The details would have been familiar to everybody reading it in Poe's day. It would have been the equivalent of writing about JonBenet (Ramsey), if you were doing a novel based on JonBenet today," Stashower said in an interview at his Bethesda home.
Stashower's book details Rogers' slaying and the breathless coverage it inspired while examining what led Poe — who once wrote that the death of a beautiful woman was "the most poetical topic in the world" — to apply his talents to the case.
The subtitle, "The Invention of Murder," refers not only to how the Rogers case changed the way homicides were covered in the press but to Poe's invention of the detective story — "the way Edgar Allan Poe seized on the story and transformed it from the dry facts of what had happened in the newspapers into this inventive, creative story that he turned to his own purposes," Stashower said.
Early reviews for "The Beautiful Cigar Girl," which went on sale Oct. 5, have been enthusiastic, albeit with minor reservations. Publishers Weekly said "Poe's genius and literary legacy are hauntingly drawn" but argued that "Stashower's account bogs down in comparisons of Poe's revisions of the Roget manuscript." Booklist compared Stashower's book to Erik Larson's best-selling "The Devil in the White City," another nonfiction tale of 19th-century murder and mayhem.
"The Beautiful Cigar Girl" shows how the American fascination with lurid crimes dates back to antebellum times. Rogers' slaying helped spur the rapidly evolving newspaper press to begin reporting on murder investigations.
The tabloids, known as the penny press, fixated on the slaying, and the more respectable papers soon followed. The story allowed editors to advance their agendas against city leadership, including the argument that New York's ramshackle police force was ill equipped to investigate such a crime.
A lack of adequate records makes it difficult to estimate the city's murder rate in the 1840s, when the notorious "gangs of New York" roamed the streets with impunity, but it was clearly a violent place, Stashower said.
"There were bodies being fished out of the Hudson all the time. There were murders all the time that were going unremarked and uninvestigated in any way," he said. "This one, because she had so much notoriety, obviously was used to point up the failures, but the police department was long overdue for an overhaul."
Unlike, say, JonBenet or Laci Peterson, Mary Rogers was well known before her slaying — a precursor to modern celebrities. Her employment at the cigar shop inspired a torrent of doggerel poetry from besotted customers.
"Her notoriety is unencumbered by position or achievement," according to one newsman quoted in "The Beautiful Cigar Girl."
"I didn't want to say this in the book because it sounds glib and awful, but in a way she was the Paris Hilton of her time because she was famous for being talked about," Stashower said.
Because relatively little was known about Rogers' private life, she became the source of virtually endless speculation.
"You could look at her or at her memory after her death and turn her into anything you needed her to be or wanted her to be, whether she was this innocent lamb or some kind of fallen woman," Stashower said.
Those who trumpeted her innocence suggested that Rogers had been abducted and murdered by one of the city's fearsome gangs. The "fallen woman" argument picked up momentum later, when circumstantial evidence surfaced to suggest Rogers was the victim of a botched abortion, although that scenario doesn't explain the strangulation.
"There were finger marks. There was a lace cord tied around her neck," Stashower said. "There's an awful lot that doesn't fit easily into any single explanation."
Poe, meanwhile, published his first detective story featuring Dupin, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," a few months before Rogers was killed. The following year, he boasted to a prospective publisher that he would apply Dupin's deductive reasoning to the Rogers case, and that by the end he would have "indicated the assassin."
In "The Mystery of Marie Roget," Dupin persuasively debunks the hypothesis that a gang was responsible for Marie's death, instead pointing to a single killer. He zeroes in on seemingly peripheral newspaper passages about the case and concludes that a naval officer acquainted with Marie was responsible.
Stashower demonstrates, though, that to arrive at his theory of the crime, Poe had to fudge some details and ignore others, and he fails to provide an entirely satisfactory conclusion. Plus, he revised "Marie Roget" at the last minute to incorporate veiled references to the possibility that Marie had an abortion.
"It says a lot about Poe that this mysterious naval officer that he always talks about is still thrown up as a likely solution," Stashower said.
Despite his detailed explanation of the story's shortcomings, Stashower said he came away from "The Beautiful Cigar Girl" with a greater admiration for Poe, whose literary genius persevered despite poverty, alcohol abuse and his wife's long illness.
"The parts where he was brilliant are very, very brilliant," Stashower said, "and the parts where he was fudging or being a charlatan — also pretty brilliant."