BookBin2011: The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder

So I bet a lot of you thought to yourselves, “Wow, Loba is really slacking when it comes to books this year. Lazy Loopy Lupine.” But haha, denizens. The joke is on you! I have been steadily reading (and since I’ve been seeing quite a bit of the airline industry as of late, I’ve had even more reading time on my hands), I just haven’t had the time to write anything.

I’m trying to change that…slowly but surely. And we start this evening, with a book that I finished a little more than a month ago: Daniel Stashower’s The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder.

First, a bit of revelation: As many denizens already know, I was an English major in college. What most people don’t know is that my concentration was in American literature (mainly because if I had to read one more thing by Charles Dickens, I might have been forced to slit something…I’m sorry, but even I’m not that much of an Anglophile), and my focus was on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Had I gone on to earn my master’s degree, I more than likely would have done my thesis on something Poe-related. Now, if I went for a master’s degree, it would probably be in something forensics-related.

Yes, I’m still on that particular kick. It’s not going away any time soon, denizens. You’ll understand better with my next book review.

Anyway, the minute I saw this book tucked away in the bargain bin at the local Borders, I knew that I needed to have it. A book all about the true crime inspiration for a story written by one of my all-time favorite authors? And for under $4? Sold. It took me a little more than a year to finally shuffle this one to the top of my current book stack, and I must admit that once I started reading this one, I was supremely disappointed in myself that it took me that long to finally crack this one open.

Stashower does a brilliant job of telling two primary tales in this work, interweaving them in complementary and collaborative ways. First is the story of Mary Rogers, a young woman who worked in a New York City cigar shop and was apparently famous the city over simply because she was attractive. Then she became infamous when she disappeared, only for her body to wash ashore a few days later, showing signs of an extremely traumatic assault and murder. Her case gripped the city as the bumbling, virtually nonexistent NYC police force fumbled their investigation and the local papers ran editorials and rumors over hard facts in an attempt to make the most profit from an audience craving the more salacious rundown rather than the sterile truth.

What’s that saying? The more things change, the more they stay the same? Indeed.

The second tale that Stashower tells is of Poe himself. Stashower presents a solid, cohesive, and refreshingly honest take on Poe’s evolution as the master of macabre storytelling as well as his downward spiral and subsequent (and too early) demise. Poe’s life reads like one of his more harrowing and heartbreaking tales. His brilliance is undeniable. So, too, is the fact that he was self-destructive and suffering from quite a few deeply psychological quirks that invariably seemed to rear their heads at the most inappropriate of times.

Stashower does a remarkable job of detailing the peaks and valleys of Poe’s life and career, doing so in tandem with the story of Mary Rogers’ murder and subsequent crime investigation and how Poe turned her tragedy into “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” the second story to feature one of his most famous contributions to the literary world: C. Auguste Dupin, the very first crime novel detective. Yes, Monsieur Dupin predates even the master himself, Sherlock Holmes. It’s been years since I read any of the Dupin stories and the only Holmes story I have ever read was The Hound of the Baskervilles, so I will refrain from trying to make any sort of in-depth comparisons of the two detectives. I will say only this: Dupin was first. Poe predated Doyle. America, fuck yeah!!

Churlish, puerile responses aside, this was a highly enjoyable and informative read, even for someone who used to read about Poe all the time. I will give fair warning, though, that, because of the nature of the parts of this book about Mary Rogers, there are quite a few rather graphic descriptions pertaining to her murder investigation…nothing that could compete with some of the stuff that we see every week on CSI. However, if you’re squeamish, you have been forewarned.

Final Verdict: Definitely keeping this one. I can place it next to my copy of The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Perhaps it will even inspire me to re-read the adventures of Monsieur Dupin…