Books I Did Not Finish: The Beautiful Cigar Girl – Daniel Stashower

I purchased The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rodgers, Edgar Allen Poe, and the Invention of Murder by Daniel Stashower at Derby Square Bookstore in Salem, MA five years ago, just before the owner sold the business. It was one of the last times I ever set foot in the shop before the new owners renovated it. You read about places like this, but rarely get to experience them anymore. You knew from yards away it was a used book store because the windows were gloriously cluttered with volumes. When you stepped inside, stacks of books rose around you, on floors and on tables, jutting from shelves, threatening to tumble but never delivering drama outside their pages. I couldn’t tell you what the man who owned the place looked like—he barricaded himself behind precariously positioned towers of paperbacks at the register, taking money and returning receipts through a slim channel on the high counter. Behind his register confessional, trapped between glass and stacks, a box set of the first five Harry Potter novels rotted in the window, blue box bleached pale by the sun.

The new owners told me they threw away a solid twelve inches of books from the bottom of the piles, books that sat on the carpeted floor for decades, disintegrating slowly. They threw away the carpet, too. They found a shallow fireplace on one wall and installed hardwood floors and window shades. These days, the shop is charming, welcoming and deliberately cluttered without becoming overwhelming. I want to like it, because I want to like all bookstores, but they never seem to have any books I want to read.

I wanted to read The Beautiful Cigar Girl. I wanted to be thrilled by it, this story of an unsolved murder, sensationalized by the press, taken up by Poe and his fictional detective Dupin. I carried it from one apartment to another, kept it on the to-read shelf in the living room, waited for the right moment (I routinely take years to read books I acquire). I finally jumped in expecting the dramatic read promised by the book’s description.

And I was completely bored out of my mind.

Stashower writes perfectly competent sentences that relay facts about Mary Rogers and Edgar Allen Poe in alternating chapters. He details life in 19th century New York City using many anecdotal asides. But he set few scenes, draws few connections between his city-life descriptions and Mary Rodgers’s life, and asks no questions for which he can then offer answers for the reader. We know from the outset that the case was never solved, and Stashower gives over to the inevitability of this like George Lucas gave in to the inevitability of Anakin’s future in the Star Wars prequels. I forced myself to read a third of this book, until I was skim reading, until I started skipping whole pages, until I could not go on. There was no tension, no sense of mystery. For a story about speculation and sensationalism, this book is astonishingly lacking in any sense of dread or urgency. I think the sections about Poe are meant to be wry and sly, but they come across as heavily judgmental instead. Two days after I stopped reading, I couldn’t remember Mary Rodgers’s name. This book utterly fails to engage.

It doesn’t help Stashower that I picked this up after finishing a Joanne Harris novel, a master class of evocative details and feelings. But I won’t blame a book hangover or a rough switch from one genre to another. The Beautiful Cigar Girl is simply a boring book. I swapped it at work on the take-a-book leave-a-book shelf for Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking, another nonfiction book I’ve been meaning to read for years. Cain opens the book with an anecdote about Rosa Parks, and I was instantly hooked. Her style is witty and absorbing. I feel guilty for leaving such a lackluster book in its place.