The American Boy
"All that day, Sophie avoided my company. When circumstances threw us together, she would no meet my eyes. I snapped at the boys and was surly with the servants. It is all very well to say one should bear misfortune with philosophy, but in my experience when misfortune comes in by one door, philosophy leaves by the other." (p 294)
The American Boy is a pre-Victorian murder mystery set in 1819-20 but, amazingly, was written in the twenty-first century. It was inspired by the author's interest in the brief period that Edgar Allan Poe spent in England while still a young boy. Building on this real event and some of the real characters, such as Edgar's foster father John Allan and his natural father David Poe, Andrew Taylor spins a mystery out of this moment in the famous author's life. The result is a very satisfying mystery with a central character, Thomas Shields, who is a school teacher but becomes quite by accident an amateur sleuth as the mystery of several intertwined families, two murders, a banking scandal, and the identity of the victim of one of the crimes draws Shields gradually deeper into its depths. As a school teacher in a small school he has two students, Edgar Allan and Charles Frant, who become mutual friends and in whom he takes an interest as they are bullied by some bigger boys. Shields is somewhat impoverished and thus dependent on his "betters" with certain consequences for the story. He inhabits a sort of never-land somewhere in between the Parents of his students and their servants. Since he is living in their households for much of the story as tutor to Edgar and his friend Charles Frant this existence becomes somewhat oppressive for Shields. It is further complicated by his attraction to the mother of Charles. Murder, unacceptable love, questions of identity and missing money -- just the stuff of great mysteries. The best part of this novel is the pre-Victorian setting as Andrew Taylor effectively recreates the world of England in the last days of the reign of King George III. Told in the first person by Thomas Shield through his journal the story covers only nine months time but there is what becomes a tidal wave of events and plot twists before Shields' narrative is complete.
I was unfamiliar with Andrew Taylor when I discovered this book, intrigued by the connection with Poe. What I found was a master of mystery whose ability to create a believable labyrinthine plot keeps the reader guessing almost until the last page.
The American Boy by Andrew Taylor. Harper Perennial, 2008.