Monday, October 21, 2013

Book review: "The Beautiful Cigar Girl"

The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of MurderThe Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder by Daniel Stashower

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On a sweltering day in July of 1841, a body was discovered floating in the water off a beach in Hoboken, New Jersey. It was hauled in and, upon examination of what was left of it, it was determined that the girl had been beaten and strangled. She made anything but a lovely sight.

In life, though, she had been uncommonly beautiful. The victim turned out to be none other than Mary Cecilia Rogers, "The Beautiful See-gar Girl" who had gained fame in New York while working the counter at Anderson's Tobacco Emporium. While such employment may seem workaday to modern readers, at the time it was a departure, and there was a fair amount of hand-wringing over whether such a job was proper for a respectable girl. In any case, Mary had what it took to bewitch and beguile Andersons' male customers with her dark good looks and her bright and friendly personality. In no time, Anderson's was teeming with cigar aficionados and those who bought cigars just to be near Mary.

When Mary turned up murdered, it was a cause celebre. The press ripped into the disorganized and slow-to-act law enforcement entities on both sides of the river. Anderson's had become something of a hang-out for the city's literary types, and one of these, a struggling alcoholic ne'er do well, decided to write a fictionalized account of the case and to solve it through what he called "ratiocination", or deductive reasoning. He set his version of events in Paris and titled it "The Mystery of Marie Roget." He introduced literature's first detective, named Dupin, who had first appeared in "The Murders In The Rue Morgue." The author, of course, was Edgar Allan Poe, who may in fact have known Mary Rogers in her capacity as counter girl at Anderson's.

In this book, Daniel Stashower skillfully intertwines the story of Mary Rogers with the fascinating and often dreadful life of Edgar Allan Poe, bringing the times and the people brilliantly to life. I learned a whole world of things about Poe that I never knew. As for Mary Rogers, her story had been largely lost to time, but here it is brought back to life vividly. I will offer a word of warning: no definitive solution for her death is arrived at here, though many possibilities are offered up. There is no final "a-ha!" moment, but the book is nonetheless well worth the read, and I do recommend it for anyone who likes to read popular history.

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Sioux said...

Shay--I'm curious: what kept it from being worthy of that fifth star?

It sounds like a book I should request from the library...

Margaret said...

! Sound right up my alley! Thanks - and I'm curious about the above question as well. I like a book that leaves it open a bit - and it should as we will never know.

Vesper said...

Thank you for the review. It seems such an interesting book! So many elements that fascinate me in it... I will look for it.

hedgewitch said...

On my must read list, Shay. Thanks for the as always cogent review.

Fireblossom said...

To answer Sioux and Margaret...I save five stars for books that totally rock my world, change my life, change how I think. 4 stars still means i really liked it. :-)

HermanTurnip said...

Sounds morbidly fascinating. And anything to do with Poe is alright in my book. Might just pick it up!

Cloudia said...

A most complete and compelling review!

ALOHA from Honolulu
Comfort Spiral

Sara said...

Sounds like a good read. I'll check it out. I like your reviews. They're very descriptive...somehow this doesn't surprise me, however:~)

Mama Zen said...

This sounds incredibly cool!

Kay L. Davies said...

This sounds like a good book, Shay. I have always wanted to write mysteries, but I can't plot...devious isn't in me any more.
So I read mysteries by the hundredweight, and re-read them after I've forgotten whodunnit.