A toast to Edgar Allen Poe

"In A Strange City"
By Laura Lippman (William Morrow, 310 pps., $24)

Buy it at in hardcover

Reviewed by John Orr
November 2001

One of Baltimore's greatest mysteries is the identity of the yearly visitor to the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. Every January 19 since 1949, a tall person dressed in black has arrived between midnight and 6 a.m. and left a half-full bottle of cognac and three roses on the grave, marking the birthday of the inventor of the mystery novel.

Life magazine once managed to get a photograph of the Poe Toaster -- from a respectful distance -- but nobody has really tried too hard to establish or publish an identity.

Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Lippman uses the Poe visitor as a starting place for her latest mystery, "In A Strange City."

Lippman's hero, Tess Monaghan, a private detective who was once a newspaper reporter, is approached by an antiques collector using what turns out to be a fake name. He wants Monaghan to trail the mysterious Poe Toaster and discover his identity. The collector says he was cheated in a business transaction, and somehow the Poe Toaster is involved.

Monaghan isn't the kind of person who would unmask a department-store Santa, much less one of Baltimore's favorite traditions, so she refuses the case.

But she goes to the late-night vigil anyway, with her boyfriend, Crow, and is on hand when two Poe Toasters show up, and one of them is murdered.

With no client for about 200 pages, Monaghan bumbles around trying to find out who the antiques collector was, and what he has to do with the killing. Before long a half-full bottle of cognac and three roses are left at her doorstep, and she fears she may also end up a target.

Lippman can write a complete sentence, and Monaghan, Crow and her dog are nice enough, but there is a lot of dead space in this novel that makes it a bit of a drudgery to get through -- except, perhaps, for readers who are fascinated by the city of Baltimore or by how much Monaghan hates the press -- which she skewers frequently in this tale.

Monaghan's investigation touches informatively and amusingly on the odd world of antique scouts and collectors, though without the thoroughness or charm of Larry McMurty's fine novel, "Cadillac Jack."

There are fun little details of identity and mistaken identity scattered throughout "In A Strange City" that make it a mildly amusing read. Her last pages wrap up a lot of it.

The quality of clues scattered throughout is questionable. I correctly guessed the identity of the murderer in the chapter in which that person was introduced, but I doubt Lippman meant for it to be that obvious.