Edward Irving Wortis, nicknamed “Avi” by his twin sister, is a prolific writer of children’s and young adult literature. He has published more than seventy books and has won both the Newbery Honor and the Newbery Medal. The Man Who Was Poe was published in 1989.
Providence, Rhode Island—November, 1848
Edmund sits alone on the edge of his bed in a small corner room on the top floor of a tenement building on Ann Street. A single candle lights and heats the cold room, and the frail, sad boy sits watching his sister. She resembles her brother, and she sits in front of a fairy tale book from which she has not read in hours. It has been two days since their Aunt Pru left them, and they are worried—and hungry. Their aunt has left to look for their mother before, but she has never been away this long before. There is nothing in the house to eat, and Sis suggests they go out to buy something to eat with the half dime they have. Edmund is hesitant; he reminds her they are new to America and there are unknown dangers everywhere. Because Edmund sees himself now as the head of this little family, he finally agrees to go alone and locks his sister safely inside the building.
Fearfully, he enters the saloon on the corner and asks what food he can buy for his coin. The imposing man behind the counter cuts a loaf of bread in half and wraps it for the boy. Edmund is dismayed by the meager amount of food but leaves quickly to get back to his sister. As he rounds the corner, a bent old man calls out to him, asking for directions. Edmund is torn, for he knows he should get back to his sister but he also knows Aunt Pru would want him to help an old man in need. They walk to Shamrock Street, the old man’s destination, much more slowly than Edmund would have liked. When Edmund finally arrives back at home, he unlocks the door and discovers his sister is gone.
A rather dark, intense man with a carpetbag is striding toward his destination, sometimes with purpose, sometimes hesitantly. It is a cold, dark evening, and he thinks about where he will stay tonight. He is a writer, but he is broke at the moment. He rummages through his carpetbag and finds a letter. Though he wrote it himself, he is still not satisfied with its contents. He knows he must deliver it anyway, so he approaches the red building, Number Eighty-Eight on Benefit Street. It seems to him a most horrifying sight, now that he is standing in front of it. He begins to sweat and his heart begins to hurt.
As he turns and flees from the frightening place, he someone crashes into him. The man looks around but sees no one, and he is terrified that a demon has struck him. Then he sees a young, frightened boy sitting on the pavement. Edmund apologizes for bumping into the man. The man scolds him and starts to walk away, but something about the shivering, frightened boy moves him. When he asks the boy what is wrong, Edmund tells him everything—his missing mother, his father lost long ago at sea, his missing aunt, his trip to the saloon for bread, his sister missing from a locked room. The man is sympathetic and says he may be able to help.
First, though, the man gives Edmund the letter and tells him to deliver it to a Mrs. Helen Whitman at Number Eighty-Eight on Benefit Street. Edmund is puzzled but does as he is asked. The man watches as a pale hand reaches out to take the letter from the boy. When Edmund returns to the spot where the man had been, he sees no one. The man suddenly appears and they both see a candle in a second-story room of the house the boy has just left. She is reading the letter, and the man is somewhat distraught.
The man seems suddenly to realize there is perhaps a potential story to be written (and money to be made) from the boy’s experience. He asks the boy’s name: Edmund Albert George Brimmer. When the boy asks him the same question, the man looks at Number Eighty-Eight speculatively and says his name is Mr. Auguste Dupin. He then asks if he can stay with the boy tonight, and Edmund again wants to know if he can help find Sis. Dupin asks if there is no one else to help; Edmund tells him he asked everyone he saw all day and no one offered to help. Dupin asks Edmund if he is sure he wants his help, and Edmund hesitates before answering. He remembers Aunt Pru’s warnings about dangers lurking in unexpected places, and he looks into this man’s penetrating eyes. Edmund tells Dupin he does want his help because he has no one else. As they walk away, the door to Number Eighty-Eight opens and a servant girl leaves to deliver a message to the Hotel American House: “Mr. Arnold, Edgar Allan Poe has come.”
The boy and his companion walk toward the tenement and get closer to the port; the writer is impressed with this setting for his future story. Edmund explains that when their Aunt Pru used to leave the house every day, he and Sis used to do the same. It was Sis’s idea, but he had to take care of her so he went, too. They made a friend of one of the ships’ captains, Captain Elias. Dupin wonders if Sis might have left when Edmund left to get bread and did not come back soon enough. Edmund explains he only stopped to help an old man get to his destination. This seems quite important to the older man, who says details are important.
Edmund is reconsidering his request for this man’s help when Dupin notices a small commotion on the docks. He leaves his bag with the boy and goes to see if what he fears is true. Two men are examining something on the dock; Asa Throck is the night watchman, and Mr. Fortnoy is the man who found the body. When Dupin sees it is the body of a woman, ghastly pale in death, he is seized with a tremor of pain at such a loss of youth and beauty. As he recovers, he sees a marked resemblance between the woman and young Edmund. He asks the men what will happen to her if she is not identified, and they tell him she will be buried in a pauper’s field. Dupin fetches Edmund and asks if this is his aunt. The boy is stunned and says it is not her dress, but it is her. Dupin quickly ushers him away from the tragic scene.
When they arrive at the Ann Street tenement, Edmund wonders what if he must tell Sis what has happened to their aunt. Dupin reacts strongly when Edmund says “Sis,” explaining that was his late wife’s name. Edmund tries to apologize but Dupin rudely interrupts him to ask where the candles are and what there is to eat. Upon finding there are few candles and no food, the man gives Edmund a coin to buy a little food and some candles.
As soon as Edmund leaves, Dupin pulls out a notebook, quill, and pen and begins scribbling notes about Edmund and his tragic story. Writing helps ease his tension, and he reaches for a liquor bottle in his carpetbag. After drinking it all and staring morosely out the window, Dupin grows angry and wonders why death is so certain and why he is here, in this place. He finds another bottle in his bag and drinks it as well. Soon he is dozing at the table.
Outside the building, Edmund looks up at his window and examines his shattered emotions. So much has happened in the last twenty-four hours, and he is quite unsure whether Mr. Dupin will actually help him. He finally ventures to the saloon. As he walks, Edmund hears footsteps nearby; when he stops walking, the footsteps also stop. He looks around and sees someone with what seems to be white hair, and he calls out for his aunt; however, the shape seems to “collapse in on itself” and disappears. When he walks into the saloon, the entire crowd grows silent and stares at the young boy. Edmund makes his purchases and leaves, but the group discusses him after he is gone.
Fortney enters the saloon and makes his report to Throck: the boy only went from his house to the saloon and back. Throck asks about the man and is assured he has not left. Fortney thinks the boy may have spotted him, but he is not sure. Disgusted, Throck leaves the saloon, and Fortney follows. The man behind the bar explains what the two men are doing and shows everyone a wanted poster; anyone who finds Mrs. G. Rachett, formerly of London, is guaranteed a reward.
Edmund bursts into his room and discovers the drunk Mr. Dupin. He eats half the meat pie. He again wonders about his missing family and questions his choice to accept help from this rather odd and secretive man, then he goes to bed. Dupin wakes up and is delirious; he sees phantasmagorical images and hears imaginary footsteps pacing the hallway. Eventually he sinks painfully into a deep sleep. Soon a piece of paper is slipped under the door and quiet footsteps retreat down the hall.
Dupin wakes first and wonders where he is and who the sleeping boy is, then he remembers why he is here: courting Mrs. Whitman, trying to raise money for his new journal, and more. He remembers the boy’s story and reads what he wrote the night before. It is painful to think again about the certainty of death, and he reaches into his carpetbag for another bottle. They are all empty. He spots the remaining half of the meat pie and eats voraciously. When finished, he puts on his overcoat and prepares to leave; as he does, he sees the mysterious paper and reads it: “MEDDLE AT YOUR PERIL!” He sees this as a challenge and wonders if there is more to the boy’s story; however, he still intends to leave and almost makes it before Edmund wakes up and sees him. Dupin is a bit embarrassed that he was going to sneak out and leave the boy in such circumstances. Edmund asks if the man will still help him. Dupin considers. He knows he must gather more material if he is to write the boy’s story, so he promises to help until that afternoon, when he has an appointment.
He tells Edmund that he already has all the information needed to find his sister; it will simply take a man like himself, with an analytical mind, to synthesize the facts and discover the truth. Dupin settles in with pen and paper to capture the details as Edmund answers his questions. With some prodding, Edmund tells him the following story:
He, his sister, and his mother were living in London until a year ago when his mother unexpectedly left them with her sister (Aunt Pru). A month ago, the three of them had come to America to try to find Edmund’s mother. Their aunt brought them here after receiving a message delivered by a stranger, but she did not share the contents of the message with either of the children. Sis is eleven years old and is Edmund’s twin. Aunty used to go out every day searching for their mother, leaving them locked in their home with the only other key (in case they had to use the outside privy). The locked door does not open from the inside without a key. Two days ago she told them she was meeting a man who might help them, and they never saw her again. There is a locked trunk belonging to Aunt Pru that contains clothing and family photos.
By leaning out the window, Dupin can touch the window of the building next door. Suddenly Dupin heads out the door, and Edmund scurries to follow. The man examines both buildings closely, then shares his conclusion with the boy. Since Edmund is certain he locked the door behind him when he left, whoever took Sis must have been in the room directly opposite their room in the building next door. They immediately run to the spot and bang on the door. When no one answers, Dupin flings his shoulder to the door and pushes it in. The room is empty except for a wooden plank, a plank just long enough to reach across the gap to Edmund’s window.
Dupin tells the boy to search the floor; when Edmund questions him, he berates him for so much questioning. Edmund begins looking and soon finds a pearl button, one he identifies as being from his sister’s shoe. When asked why he thinks she might have left it behind, Edmund immediately tells him her favorite fairy tale is Hansel and Gretel. This is the crumb she left behind as a trail for him to follow, though Edmund is puzzled why she would play such a game with him. Dupin assures the boy it is no game and she was forced across the plank.
They leave the room and go to the main door of the tenement and inquire after the landlord. When the elderly lady who answered the door hesitates, Dupin tells her he is a city officer and needs to speak with the person in charge. She is still hesitant, but Dupin persists and asks for the name of the tenant in the room in question. She tells him the man arrived two weeks ago and insisted on that very room, but he never lived there. He and another man simply came and visited a few times; the renter was a rather large man who called himself Mr. Smith.
The pair leaves the building and goes to a nearby café. Soon Dupin sees Mr. Throck slip into the crowded room. Dupin keeps him in sight as he and Edmund talk and eat. Dupin explains to Edmund there are clearly two men who are part of the plot to kidnap his sister. After luring Aunt Pru out of the house, one of them was waiting for Edmund to leave and distract him if necessary while the other took Sis. When he places their order with the waiter, Dupin asks him if the man he has been watching is, indeed, named Throck. He is, and the waiter says the man has a great story to tell: the bank was robbed of all its California gold last night. Dupin begins to write, and Edmund asks him again if they should tell someone about Sis. Again Dupin asks Edmund if he truly wants his help and, if he does, to cease questioning him.
Dupin sends Edmund on an errand to a nearby tailor, and when he leaves Throck comes to Dupin’s table demanding to know if he has something on his mind. Dupin invites the man to sit and proceeds to tell Throck everything he has surmised about him. He was once in the army, as he knows because they are both wearing army coats, and he is a man who loves violence, judging by the scar on his face and the ill-concealed gun in his vest. When he asks Throck about the woman on the dock, Dupin is surprised when the man mentions the boy’s mother. Throck continues to antagonize Dupin until Dupin confronts him with the threatening note. The officer storms off with the paper.
Dupin ponders the similarities between Edmund’s life and his own. Both have been abandoned and have fathers who are dead; both have aunts who took the place of their mothers. Both have a loved one called “Sis.” There are two distinct differences: Dupin has a detestable step-father and his Sis is dead. He hopes the similarity does not extend to Edmund’s missing sister.
At the clothier’s, Edmund is intimidated by the rich fabrics and sees the tailor working on a rather portly man. They are discussing the missing gold, which had been somehow whisked away without any of the locks being touched. When the heavyset man turns around, his eyes widen at the sight of Edmund, and he displays a moment of panic before turning violently away. The owner shoos Edmund out of the store, and Edmund is humiliated. As he looks back at the shop, Edmund is surprised to see the portly man scurrying out of the store and looking around nervously.
Back at the café, Dupin is drunk; when Edmund arrives, he does not appear to remember that he sent the boy away so he could talk to Throck. Edmund is to take another note to Number Eighty-Eight Benefit Street; he is to give it only to Mrs. Helen Whitman and only if she is alone. As soon as Edmund leaves, Dupin asks the waiter for directions to the courthouse; he intends to observe the inquest of the dead woman on the docks.
Despite his filthy appearance, Edmund is taken to Mrs. Whitman’s richly appointed room and delivers his letter. She is temporarily confused when he tells her Mr. Dupin sent him, but she appears to realize something important and tells Edmund to say it was Mr. Dupin who sent him in case anyone should ask. The boy is confused. When a servant girl enters and tells Mrs. Whitman her mother would like to see her, Mrs. Whitman sends Edmund to the kitchen for some bread and butter.
At the inquest, Dupin is lulled to sleep by the proceeding, which seems to drone on, until he hears someone react to the verdict that the dead woman was murdered. Though he tries to rouse himself to see who was upset at the news, he is unable to do more than see a blond-headed woman racing out of the room.
Edmund has been gone a long time and feels he must leave; when he approaches the room in which he left Mrs. Whitman, he overhears an urgent conversation. A woman’s voice says that she intercepted a letter last night, that a Mr. Poe is an “irresponsible drunkard,” and that the man to whom she speaks must expose him to prevent a marriage. They voices agree to send the housemaid to a nearby hotel. When they have gone, Edmund enters the room and sees a scrap of paper on the floor containing an odd sequence of numbers; when the servant girl enters to take him to Mrs. Whitman, Edmund stuffs the paper in his pocket.
Meanwhile, Dupin vows to stop drinking so he will be clear-headed for all that lies ahead of him. As he heads back to the café to meet Edmund, Dupin passes the bank. He is intrigued by the fact that the bank robbery happened concurrently with the woman’s death and decides to enter the building. Guards stop him and say he cannot enter unless he has specific business with the bank; he tells them he is with an insurance company and is promptly ushered into the building.
At the same time, Edmund is ushered back into the room to see Mrs. Whitman. She asks the boy how much Mr. Dupin has been drinking, how they met, and why he calls the man Mr. Dupin. Edmund does not know what to say, and Mrs. Whitman simply forges ahead with her plan. She sends a message that Dupin is to come at 3:30 rather than 4:00 and he is to come to the back door, through the cemetery on Church Street, which is behind the house. She also warns Edmund that Catherine, the housemaid, is loyal to Mrs. Whitman’s mother (Mrs. Powers), not her.
Posing as an insurance investigator, Dupin is taken directly to the bank’s vault. As he steps into the tomb-like room, Dupin fights back fear and nausea as he looks around him. He discovers a small pearl button, a strand of thread, and an air shaft leading to the outside—an opening much too small for even a thin young man. Then Dupin faints.
Edmund arrives at the café but Dupin is not there. The waiter explains that the man left immediately after Edmund left. He gives the boy the notebook Dupin left behind. The pages are full of words like death and search; he opens to a page titled “Plot” and begins to read his own story intermingled with the man’s. The last lines frighten him: “One can find life only through death. I know. My Sis is dead too.” He is now certain there is something very wrong with Mr. Dupin, even though he did figure out that Sis had been kidnapped. Aunty always told him to trust adults, so he will continue to do so.
Dupin slowly regains consciousness and sees the young accountant, a blond-haired Mr. Peterson, worrying over him. When Dupin is alert enough to walk, Peterson escorts him from the vault and gets permission to walk him to his lodgings. Before they leave, Peterson is given a note that arrived by messenger; he is a bit shaken when he reads it but dismisses the message as unimportant. As they leave the bank together, Peterson tells Dupin he one day wants to be an...
(The entire section is 7967 words.)