Not Quite Dead
Edgar Allan Poe, Irish street gangs, corrupt governments, a looming war between England and the United States, a greedy war veteran with a penchant for plucking out eyes, a plot to assassinate President Taylor, Charles Dickens: Throw these disparate elements into a paper bag, shake liberally, and the end result is John MacLachlan Gray's highly readable but unfortunately muddled Not Quite Dead.
More literary fantasy than revisionist history, the novel takes its cue from the mysterious circumstances surrounding Poe's 1849 death. Instead of collapsing on the streets of Baltimore and subsequently dying at Washington College Hospital, Gray has Poe fake his own death as a way of avoiding a plot against his life by the Irish mob. Poe is helped by his childhood friend, Dr. William Chivers, who happens to be the hospital's resident physician and who quickly becomes enmeshed in the novel's whirlwind of plots and conspiracies.
With Poe on the lam, a spate of murders occurs in which the victims are killed in a manner befitting one of Poe's classic stories (shades of Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club). These murders, combined with a series of hauntings by the "deceased" Poe, are enough to threaten an exhumation of the writer's body--an act that would bring professional ruin to Dr. Chivers and personal ruin to Poe, whom Gray sees as a misunderstood genius instead of a schlock writer. Into this mix, Gray throws a plot by an Irish immigrant group in Pennsylvania to kidnap the visiting Charles Dickens; somewhere in there is another plot for Poe to rewrite parts of David Copperfield, although to what end is never made clear.
Appropriately pegged as a " thriller," Not Quite Dead nevertheless cannot decide whether it wants to be a murder mystery, a political thriller, or a treatise on the act of writing. Instead, all the characters, plots, and subplots feel in the service of bringing together these two literary heavyweights in one book. That said, there is something captivating--and perhaps inappropriately hilarious--about the climactic encounter between the two writers, in which Dickens calls attention to the factual inaccuracies in "The Cask of Amontillado" and Poe mines the depths of Copperfield for hints of an incestuous relationship between Mr. Wickfield and Agnes. "You write about the world, about other people," Poe remarks. "I write about myself--and I include my dreams. There are drawbacks on both sides."