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The Beautiful Cigar Girl

Book Review by J. Conrad Guest

 

Hardcover: 336 pages

Publisher: Dutton Adult (October 5, 2006)

ISBN-10: 052594981X

 

When I purchased The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder, I was expecting something more along the line of The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl; that is historical fiction — fictional characters set against the backdrop of an historical story and setting.

The Beautiful Cigar Girl is Daniel Stashower’s (Teller of Tales) attempt to recount the story of Mary Rogers, a Manhattan tobacco store clerk whose mutilated corpse was discovered afloat in the Hudson River in the summer of 1841. Her death fueled a newspaper war and served as the basis for The Mystery of Marie Rogt, a magazine serial by Edgar Allan Poe featuring C. Auguste Dupin, who first appeared as the detective who used “ratiocination” to solve the mystery in Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. In his story, Poe rightly deduced that Marie, her demise modeled after Mary Rogers’, wasn’t a victim of gang violence, as the press and police believed. However, as evidence was discovered that Rogers may have instead died of a botched abortion, he had to amend his final installment to keep his reputation from being tarnished.

Stashower doesn’t attempt to solve the still unsolved mystery of Mary Rogers’ murder – we likely will never know the truth – but instead endeavors to recount the events surrounding her demise as well as the efforts to track down the perpetrator, or perpetrator’s, Poe’s own fascination with the murder, and the uncanny parallels of Poe’s and Rogers’ lives.

In an age prior to pin-up girls, striptease or pornography, Mary is depicted as perhaps America’s first sex symbol – as the Herald newspaper wrote, “Mary Rogers’s face was well known to all young men about town.” A popular T.V. show recently put forth: “We will never view women as equals until we view them as equals in death (a reference to women dying on the battlefield), and so Stashower succeeds in portraying the sensationalism Miss Roger’s death caused. Certainly had she been a he, her death would not have caused the stir it did, the story reaching as far as Philadelphia and Baltimore – both cities in which Poe resided. Yet many of the details of Mary’s life amount to conjecture and hearsay in comparison to what is commonly known of Poe’s self-destructive abuse of the bottle, poverty, love life and rants against publishers and fellow writers of the period. The title is misleading, as The Beautiful Cigar Girl – particularly in the final third, perhaps the result of Poe’s greater celebrity – reads more like a biography of his life. It was only as I neared the conclusion of The Beautiful Cigar Girl that I came to understand the “and the Invention of Murder” portion of the title as Poe having given birth to the modern detective story.

Stashower shows Poe as his own worst enemy. Despite his genius and a literary legacy that would go unrecognized until after his death at the age of 40, Poe forever portrayed himself a victim of lesser talents and those unable to recognize talent even as he continually sabotaged his own career.

If you’re expecting fast-paced historical fiction, you may be disappointed. However, as an account of life in New York City in the mid-nineteenth century – including the birth of the tabloid, the many gangs that instilled fear in the local population, a nearly non-existent police force made up of volunteers, and an inept coroner – the mystery surrounding a grisly murder the likes of which had never before been seen (think Criminal Minds), and a biography of one of this country’s greatest writers, I found The Beautiful Cigar Girl a fascinating read.

 

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