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Did Edgar Allan Poe know more about murder than he revealed in his bizarre stories of murder and mayhem? Was he in fact guilty of killing a girlfriend in a fit of rage many years before he became famous?
Bruce Wetterau’s taut thriller weaves a murder mystery worthy of Poe himself while following Poe through actual events during the last months of his life. The year 1849 saw the real-life Poe dealing with his alcoholism, failing health, poverty, and painful memories of his recently deceased child-bride wife. His life had become a psychological pressure cooker, with severe anxiety attacks and bouts of strange hallucinations.
The Girl Behind the Wall opens in early 1849. Poe is being tormented by frightening visions about murdering Annabel while he was a student at the University of Virginia. Deathly afraid of the hangman's noose, Poe knows he can never tell anyone about the repressed memories haunting him. But a newspaper reporter named Sam Reynolds has overheard him talking erratically about Annabel while in a drunken stupor. That a man as famous as Poe could be a murderer would be the scoop of a lifetime. Reynolds is determined to get that story at all costs.
Flash forward nearly two hundred years to the present when the book's hero, Clay Cantrell, accidentally uncovers damning evidence--Annabel’s skeleton and a locket from Poe--behind an old brick wall at the university. While the mystery of Annabel's murder and Poe's strange visions unfolds in flashbacks, Cantrell and friends launch a search of their own for the truth about Annabel's death. But another murder mystery much closer to home overtakes them when a cold-blooded serial killer named the Raven claims his first victim, a UVA coed.
Obsessed with Poe, the Raven stages his murders with clever ties to Poe’s works. So Clay and friends desperately search Poe’s writings for clues to help stop the murders. Their success draws the Raven's wrath, landing Clay in his cross hairs. Clay, an ex-Army Ranger, isn't afraid though, because this isn't the first vicious killer he's had to fight. But he doesn't know the Raven's conjured up a diabolical plan to execute him.
Will Poe finally reveal the truth about Annabel to Reynolds, or will he take the secret to his grave? Can Clay escape the Raven’s plot, discover what drives the Raven’s murderous obsession with Poe, and at long last answer the question, did Poe really kill Annabel Lee?
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TOO COLD TO TOUCH? POE AND THE GIRL BEHIND THE WALL
By Bruce Wetterau
Reprinted from the Mystery Readers Journal, The Journal of Mystery Readers International,
Vol. 37, Number 4, Winter 2021
How would you solve a murder mystery that wasn't discovered by police until a girl's skeleton was unearthed almost two hundred years after the fact? Surely there would be precious little left to go on. Suspects? Could have been just about anybody alive two hundred years ago. Clues? The blowing sands of time certainly would have wind-washed most of them to oblivion. No fingerprints, witness statements, or the other usual touchstones police rely on to catch a murderer. It's a cold case that in real life today probably would remain unsolved forever.
Except it can't. Because that's the goal I set for myself when I decided to write a story about Edgar Allan Poe as the prime suspect in a murder. I'll admit to being fascinated (and a bit torn) by the prospect of pinning suspicions of guilt on the author who penned classic stories of murder and mayhem and who is regarded as the father of the modern detective story. But his reputation begged the question, did he know so much about murder because, well, he'd committed one himself?
As a gleam in this author's eye, the idea struck me as deliciously ironic, if not downright deviously speculative. It also promised a multitude of possible allusions to stories Poe wrote and a host of intriguing possible subtexts too. Which is to say, I couldn't resist the idea. But in the early days of planning my novel, the mechanics of constructing the mystery, fitting it into Poe's life, and proving Poe guilty or innocent of a crime so long ago seemed all but impossible. Sometimes I wonder why the heck I make things so hard on myself.
Happily, imagination won out and The Girl Behind the Wall--Edgar Allan Poe, the Girl, and the Mysterious Raven Murders became the third novel in my Clay Cantrell Mystery Series. By design all books in my series weave back and forth between a contemporary plot and a related mystery as it unfolds in the past. So the structure gave me a leg up, allowing me to tell the story of a cold case mystery actually unfolding in the past. Meanwhile, fast forwarding to the present, I follow my amateur sleuth Clay Cantrell as he tries to uncover the truth about this coldest of cases, the murder of Poe's girlfriend, Annabel Lee, in 1826. And just to make things really interesting for this installment of the series, Clay also winds up risking his life to catch a modern-day serial killer who is both obsessed with Poe and may even be connected somehow to Annabel's murder.
Where to begin? That's usually a nagging question for writing a mystery. But from the get-go I knew it had to be with Poe suffering a bout of his strange, recurring vision about killing his girlfriend years before. Equally important in the opening pages was introducing an ambitious newspaper reporter, Sam Reynolds. He will stop at nothing to get the story of a now famous Poe as a murderer. But he has only fragments of a story from Poe himself. He's learned the girl's name and a few shreds of information from Poe's drunken ravings, but he has no murder victim, no witness, and no idea of when the murder took place.
Clay doesn't start off with much more to go on in the present day. He accidentally discovers the victim--now reduced to a desiccated skeleton--walled up behind a failing brick wall in an old tunnel under the University of Virginia Grounds. The obvious effort to hide the girl's body points to murder, of course. And a single, crucial clue makes Poe a possible suspect. A locket around the bones of Annabel's neck is inscribed "My beloved Annabel. Your devoted Eddy. Oct. 1826". The tantalizing possibility here is that the "Eddy" is Poe himself, that Annabel was his girlfriend when he was a student at the university. Could his walling her up have inspired Poe's famous story The Cask of Amontillado, if in fact he did kill her? The local police aren't interested in investigating a case so cold--it's too cold to touch--especially with a serial killer then on the loose in the town. But the case arouses Clay's curiosity, setting the second half of my mystery in motion.
I won't spoil the story by revealing how Clay and his friends, or for that matter reporter Sam Reynolds, fare in discovering the truth about Annabel's murder. But perhaps it will be enough here to explain how I came up with the idea of making Poe a murder suspect in the first place--a look into the sometimes quirky events an author's imagination builds on.
It's hard not to be at least passingly familiar with Edgar Allan Poe, of course. In my high school years, we all had to read some of his most famous, bone-chilling tales. You might ask here, was making Poe a murder suspect just payback for a boring twelfth grade English class? No, I can assure you that is not it. In fact it was my fifteen years living in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the University of Virginia is located.
You see, the University is steeped in history, having been founded by Thomas Jefferson. And it is not at all shy about its connections with Poe, who was a student there for almost a year in 1826. In my work as a reference book author and editor in the 1990s, I frequented Alderman Library, the University's main library. It's a wonderful resource and also houses a prestigious special collection of Poe's papers. What's more, back then, you only had to glance across the street from the library's front steps to see the room Poe is said to have occupied while a student there. The room, #13 in the West Range, is something of a tourist attraction furnished as it would have been in Poe's time.
The University's historic Grounds and the connections with Poe naturally brought him to mind some years later when I began planning the Clay Cantrell Mystery Series. And as a fan of the long running PBS mystery series Inspector Morse, set in and around the historic Oxford University campus, I thought the University of Virginia would make an excellent backdrop for a murder mystery set here in the U.S.
But it was a bit of local lore from my days in Charlottesville that my imagination morphed into a key element for the story. Even today I remember being fascinated by a news story in the local paper about students sneaking into the complex of old steam tunnels running hither and yon under the University Grounds. I don't know how old the tunnels are, but I naturally imagined that some might date to the earliest days of the University. I never got the chance to explore those old tunnels myself, but that didn't stop me from putting them to good use in my evolving mystery novel. They offered the perfect place to wall up Annabel's body and keep it hidden for almost two centuries until my series hero, Clay, could find it by accident!
The rest of conjuring up my cold case mystery is, as they say, history.
Author Bruce Wetterau has written three novels for his Clay Cantrell Mystery Series, Lost Treasure, Killer Fog--The Veil of Mist Shrouds a Deadly Conspiracy, and most recently, The Girl Behind the Wall.
Before turning to novel writing, Wetterau spent over twenty years as a freelance reference book author and editor. He published eleven reference books under his own name and contributed to many others. Among his reference books are World History, A Dictionary of Important People, Places, And Events; The New York Public Library Book of Chronologies; and The Presidential Medal of Freedom--Winners and Their Achievements.