Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder

I have a confession to make - an embarrassing confession.   I've only read three stories by Edgar Allan Poe, and all three were read in school.  I aspire to win an Edgar, and yet I've never read his Dupin stories.  I'm not quite sure how this happened, because I've enjoyed the Poe works I've read, but somehow he's slipped through the cracks (and then drugged and plastered into the wall).  I did read a literary biography for 12th grade English, but somehow, Sr. Maureen Christi (who is both a Poe scholar and a woman with a wicked sense of humor) managed to find a book that made the fascinatingly self-destructive Virginian, well, dull.  

Daniel Stashower's The Beautiful Cigar Girl may not be as deep as the biography I read in 1985, but it's much more entertaining.  Mary Rogers gained notoriety as a counter girl in a New York tobacconist's shop in the late 1830s.  Men lined up to be served by her, and newspapers published bad poetry in her honor - she was a Survivor demi-star for the early industrial era.  After a mysterious disappearance, she left her job and, with the help of her former employer, Mary and her mother opened a boarding house.  One hot summer day in 1841, Mary disappeared and her battered, strangled body floated ashore three days alter.  Stashower alternates between the investigation of Mary's murder and Poe's chaotic life, two threads which meet when Poe proposes a roman a clef (The Murder of Marie-Roget) in which he will solve the crime.  Since this involves Poe, there must be a twist, and one that works against the writer.  Shortly before the publication of the third and final installment, an accidental death warms up the ice-cold case and makes Poe's solution impossible.  He quickly re-writes his story in which he claims that he has been forbidden to reveal the solution and experiences another, brief period of fame and solvency but ultimately spirals back into self-destruction.  Poe outlived Mary Rogers by only 8 years, dying in Baltimore of either alcoholism or rabies at age 40.