VJ Books Blog

(news.cincinnati.com, Jan. 21, Dinesh Ramde)

“In the Shadow of the Master” (William Morrow, 416 pages), edited by Michael Connelly: The beating of the telltale heart still echoes beneath the floorboards. The cask of amontillado still eludes the wretched Fortunato. The raven still croaks, “Nevermore.”

No matter how many times you read them, Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tales never seem to lose their macabre magic.

And so, in honor of the master’s 200th birthday, which was Monday, the Mystery Writers of America have compiled a volume of his works – from the best-loved to the more obscure – along with short essays by award-winning authors who cite him as their inspiration.

“In the Shadow of the Master” was edited by Michael Connelly and includes vignettes by mystery authors from Sue Grafton to Stephen King.

Their essays provide a range of insightful observations. Some authors reminisce about their favorite Poe tales, while others recall their first exposure to his stories. Still others have come back to Poe’s works after many years and describe how their reactions have evolved as they’ve grown older.

Most of the guest essays sparkle. Each is about two to five pages, a quick read, and each resonates with an unmistakable passion for Poe.

One author, Lisa Scottoline, likens high-school exposure to Poe to broccoli for teenagers – as something forced upon kids because it’s good for them. The lesson she learned after Poe’s “William Wilson” inspired her own evil-twin story. Eat your vegetables.

A particularly stirring vignette by Laura Lippman traces the legend of the Poe Toaster. He or she is the mysterious figure who celebrates Poe’s birthday every year by stealthily leaving three red roses and half a bottle of cognac on his grave in downtown Baltimore.

Lippman once kept watch at the grave and finally caught a glimpse of the figure. But she refuses to describe the elusive fan, respecting the person’s mystery the same way that person honors the king of mysteries.

All Poe’s classics are here: “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Raven.”

So are a number of other works, lesser-known but still distinctively Poe. “A Descent Into the Maelstrom,” “The Masque of the Red Death” and “Ligeia” may not have the same name recognition as his more famous stories, but they are no less gripping.

A number of the vignettes speak of an experience that certainly rings true for this reviewer. Poe was required reading in our sixth-grade class. When we were that young, his formidable vocabulary made some of his stories a little too complex to fully appreciate.

But rereading the tales as an adult brings a fresh sense of admiration. Few authors can match his disturbing detail, few can create such disconcerting worlds of madness.

That’s why the Mystery Writers of America named its annual award the Edgar Award.

The only thing that separates “In the Shadow of the Master” from any other Poe anthology is the 20 vignettes, most of which are worthy additions. Their collective effect is to create a sense of camaraderie, as though a group of friends has gathered in communal respect of Poe’s genius.

If you just want to read Poe, any anthology will do. But readers who have loved Poe since they first explored his works will feel a special appreciation for this volume.