THE MISSING AMERICAN (Book photo: Kwei Quartey; background, Enchanted Garden at Edgar Allan Poe by Alfred Wekelo/Shutterstock)
On January 25, 2021, Mystery Writers of America announced the nominees for the 2021 Edgar Allan Poe Awards honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television published or produced in 2020. THE MISSING AMERICAN was one of the six nominees bestowed this honor. The winner will be revealed April 29, 2021. Here is the full list of nominees:
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara (Penguin Random House – Random House)
Before She Was Helen by Caroline B. Cooney (Poisoned Pen Press)
Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (Penguin Random House – Pamela Dorman Books)
These Women by Ivy Pochoda (HarperCollins Publishers – Ecco)
The Missing American by Kwei Quartey (Soho Press – Soho Crime)
The Distant Dead by Heather Young (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
So, just like the Oscars where you try to see all the movies before awards night, see if you can read all the nominated novels by the end of April! I know some of you ace readers can do it.
I always thought the Poe award was a literary honor for writers in the stratosphere far beyond my reach, especially as Edgar Allan Poe is such a venerated name in American literature. Who, then, was Edgar Allan Poe?
He was born in Boston, MA, on January 19, 1809. His alcoholic father, David, abandoned the family when Edgar was only a year old, and then died two years later. One of Edgar's earliest memories was of his actress mother, Elizabeth, who took as many roles as she could from Boston to Charleston in order to support her three children. Clearly, Edgar loved and admired his mother. In 1811 , she came to a horrible end in a squalid Richmond boarding house as tuberculosis ravaged her. It was a horrifying and traumatizing experience for young Edgar.
Life-sized statue of Edgar Allan Poe, Boston, MA (Photo: Dominionart/Shutterstock)
The three orphaned Poe children were all shuffled out to different foster homes. A wealthy tobacco merchant John Allan and his wife Frances took Edgar in. Frances treated Edgar with love and attention, and her husband John made sure Edgar was educated and mannered in the ways of a southern gentleman, but Edgar had no interest in tobacco farming. He dreamt of emulating his childhood hero, Lord Byron.
Arriving at the University of Virginia in 1826, Poe's brilliant imagination captured his classmates' attention. He drew all over the walls of his room and wrote stories that he read to his mates. But he became destitute and dangerously indebted, particularly as a result of gambling, a situation that incensed John Allan, who refused to help with Edgar alleviate his debts.
The present No. 13 West Range, thought to be Poe's room at UVA (Photo: UVA Today)
According to legend, Poe had to burn his furniture to keep warm during the freezing winter. Terrified of the debt collectors after him, Poe left university (or was pulled out by John) and joined the army under an assumed name. But poetry was in his blood, and by the early age of twenty he had used his meager funds to publish two books of poetry.
Again, a woman whom Poe admired was snatched from him when in 1829, Frances Allan succumbed to tuberculosis just as Elizabeth Poe had, leaving Edgar deeply scarred.
In 1831, he moved into the Baltimore home of his aunt Maria Clemm and her eight-year-old daughter, Virginia. It was a loving and supportive family, which was important to Edgar.
Edgar Allan Poe's home/museum, Baltimore (Photo: Shutterstock)
In 1835, Poe became the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. He was great at the job, but he was also headstrong and a brutal critic of other people's work. He even tussled with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
At the age of twenty-six, Poe married his now 13-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm, with whom he had fallen in love, and whom he had almost lost when her mother Maria threatened to send Virginia away to another relative. During that crisis, Poe had turned to alcohol to blunt his anguish. The couple's marriage certificate was falsified to state that Virginia was twenty-one. "Eddie" and Virginia appeared to have a lot of fun together, but Poe's writing career was in turmoil. Apart from the difficulty of making a living from the written word, he appeared to have a knack of sinking his own ship even when potential success was within his reach.
The grim realities of Poe's life and losses were reflected in his works, which are a mixture of morbid fears and the paranormal. He yearned for a connection with the afterlife. "The boundaries which divide life from death are, at best, shadowy and vague," he wrote in The Premature Burial. "Who shall say where the one ends and where the other begins?" This is a question we pose in modern times in connection with near-death experiences.
Poe wrestled with the juxtaposed existence of order and chaos, rationality and madness. In 1841, Poe published what is widely considered the first detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue featuring his fictional French detective Auguste Dupin, considered Sherlock Holmes's direct forerunner. Dupin uses analytic reasoning to solve the mystery of a number of vicious slashing murders that defy solution. Historians speculate that Poe, for whom logic was very important, created the detective story because of his need for logic and order (a notion I highly relate to).
The Masque Of The Red Death was likely a reflection of the awfulness of witnessing his mother coughing up blood as she lay dying of tuberculosis, which was called "consumption" at the time. This is a truly macabre and grim narrative, and no wonder. Poe had lost his mother, stepmother, and brother to TB. He had an abiding fear of the disease, and as if in a self-fulfilling prophecy, his beloved wife Virginia first coughed up blood one evening as she sang and played the piano. She was to die five hellish years later.
In January 1845, as Virginia was battling TB, the New York Evening Mirror published Poe's poem The Raven (for which he earned a grand fourteen dollars). It was an absolute sensation, so much so that people related stories of nightmares involving ravens. People flocked to see the performances of The Raven, which is about a raven called Nevermore who appears to an anguished writer who has lost his beloved. It was in fact a foreshadowing of what he knew was to happen to Virginia. It is a chilling poem that he wrote as his wife lay dying. In his despair, he often drank.
In 1846, Poe moved his ailing wife to a cottage in Fordham, New York, where the winters were bleak and made Virginia's shaking chills even worse. Even at this point, Poe sometimes didn't have enough money to keep her fed. Her death left him shredded with grief and in constant, confused state of pursuit of female companionship. He became enamored of Helen Whitman, also a poet. She was a member of wealthy society. Poe proposed to her in a cemetery and she accepted, but his growing reputation of alcoholism led Whitman's mother to ask Poe to sign an agreement that he would stake no claim to any of her wealth. Poe was insulted and broke off the engagement.
Edgar Allan Poe's cottage in New York (Photo: elisank79/Shutterstock)
Poe deteriorated into severe alcoholism and paranoia even as he reconnected with an old flame from his teenage years, Lady Shelton. They became engaged and Poe was to set off from Richmond to New York to deliver the good news to Maria Clemm. At the time, he reportedly looked very ill, and then he disappeared for days until he was found semiconscious on a Baltimore street. He was delirious and wearing someone else's soiled clothing. No one could tell what had happened, some speculating it had been a political kidnapping. After being rushed to Washington College Hospital, he spent a feverish night. In the morning he regained consciousness long enough to say, "God help my soul," before he died.
"Thank Heaven! the crisis--the danger is past, and the lingering illness is over at last."
--From the poem, For Annie by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)