VJ Books Blog

(baltimoresun.com, Jan. 19, Dave Rosenthal)

Charles Todd, the mother/son mystery writing team of Caroline and Charles Todd, drew inspration from Edgar Allan Poe. Their latest work in the Inspector Ian Rutledge series, A Matter of Justice, will be released. Here is their guest post:

I met Edgar Allan Poe while hanging over the arm of the sofa as my father read “The Gold Bug” aloud to us. We’d gone to Hatteras, rented a creaky old house among the dunes, and it had poured rain for the first two days. So my father—ever prepared—read to my sister and me. She wandered off after a while to play with the house cat, but I was well and truly hooked. The treasure was hidden in much the same seaside, as far as I was concerned, and I could picture men just out of sight, digging away. Working out the code was intriguing, and I never forgot that e was the most common letter in the English alphabet. When the rain went on another day, we got “The Purloined Letter” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, true mysteries. These were a little beyond me, but with my father’s voice changes and explanations, they kept me enthralled. I didn’t know what an Ourang-Outang was, then, but many years later, I got to touch one’s hand in Indonesia, and the memory of “Rue Morgue” came back to me.

At the Brandywine River Museum just over the line into Pennsylvania from Delaware, there is a small painting by one of the Wyeths, the father who did so many wonderful illustrations for children’s books. It’s one I’d like to have—you can see the hole, but not what’s in it, and the men stand there in astonishment, the lantern they’ve lowered casting a golden glow over their faces as if the treasure itself is reflected there. It’s just what I pictured, there among the Hatteras dunes.

In the years to come, I got to know Poe in other ways. First came “The Raven,” which we had to memorize in school, and all the other glorious poetry that used words in ways that whetted my appetite for more. They danced and sang and stayed in the mind. One of the reasons I’ve always loved poetry comes from Poe — “Eldorado”, “Annabel Lee”, “To One in Paradise”, and of course, “The Bells”. How can you resist lines like “And all my days are trances, And all my nightly dreams Are where thy gray eye glances, And where thy footstep gleams—”?

I’d progressed on my own through the less horrific tales — “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Masque of the Red Death”, the more shivery ones read under the covers with a flashlight and couldn’t sleep afterwards for thinking about the story. I think of Stephen King when I go back to those now: “The Tell-tale Heart”, “The Black Cat” —

In college we read his prose articles, “The Philosophy of Composition” and “The Poetic Principle.” Most people don’t remember that Poe was a critic as well writer. I remember that he felt that Tennyson was the “noblest of poets.” And while not as much fun as his poetry and stories, he had a great deal to say about the writers of his day, while they were still living and actively writing.

In turn, I read Poe to my own children, watching them hang on every word, their eyes far away, picturing the scenes as I had done.

But we weren’t finished with Poe. There was a Sisters in Crime reading in his house in Philadelphia. They say it’s haunted, and I believe it. One of the rangers there put on the most wonderful performance of Poe’s life, reciting from his poetry, his short stories and his critical articles. She—you wouldn’t have believed it!—was so real it was hard to think of her as anyone but Poe. It was like meeting the man I’d only known on the printed pages and covers of the Mystery Writers of America’s Banquet Annual, where various portraits of him graced the cover. (I arranged for the first Poe cover in full color something I am proud of.) While in Richmond, I made a point to see the house there, almost hidden behind the railway station overpass. We joined Mystery Writers of America shortly after A Test of Wills, the first Rutledge mystery, came out, and their logo is Poe because he wrote the first modern mysteries, his character C. Auguste Dupin the Parisian Sherlock Holmes of his day.

Dupin has been described (in the stories) as a man of “peculiar analytic ability” despite his equally peculiar way of life-—or perhaps it might be better to say that Holmes was the English C. Auguste Dupin of his day. We’ve been nominated for an Edgar [the MWA award] and we’ve presented Edgars to other winners. There’s something about standing on the stage, looking across the darkened ballroom as the person whose name we’ve just called, tries to make his way to the podium in a state of shock and euphoria. Meanwhile, Charles and I are taking turns hugging the Edgar statue or the Raven statue, and wishing it was going home with us. One of these days, dear friend Laura Lippman, we’ll edge you out.

While we were in Baltimore for the Bouchercon Mystery Convention at the Sheraton, we went to see Poe’s grave. No mysterious veiled personage was there before us in the cold sunlit morning when Elena Santangelo and I walked there. It’s at the side of a church yard, the church an awesome Victorian backdrop well suited to a master of words, and iron railings cutting it off from the busy street, a quiet corner where he sleeps—and dreams? Charles went by in the evening, listening to the scuttle of leaves and the whisper of the wind around the church towers. It’s an evocative site.

I have a feeling we’re not finished with Poe yet. There’s that elusive statue for one thing. And I think if Charles and I had to pin down books that sparked our creative instincts as youngsters, it was Poe’s “Gold Bug”, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter”, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Why? Because they speak to a child’s imagination and these are the stories that set your tastes in reading early on. Stories that are exciting and suspenseful and a feast for a young reader just discovering the magic of words on a page. Dick and Jane and Spot can’t hold a candle to them. These were the Harry Potter tales of another day, books that were accessible and intriguing and well within a child’s understanding without being condescending. Every generation of readers needs its own Harry Potter and its Poe and Stevenson and Conan-Doyle. They keep literacy—and authors worth remembering—alive.