The Hum Bugby Harold Schechter
Having proved his deductive brilliance solving Baltimore's notorious "Nevermore Murders," Edgar Allan Poe turns his investigative eye to the streets of mid-nineteenth century New York City. A young beauty with a shadowy past has been savagely murdered; her hideous wounds mirror a gruesome tableau in P.T. Barnum's wax exhibit -- and it is in defense of his own innocence that America's greatest showman has come to Poe for help. But neither the writer nor the huckster has anticipated the jagged maze that is the soul of a madman....
Harold Schechter, whose historical fiction "keeps the finger of suspicion wandering until the very end" (The New York Times Book Review), adds a wry, pitch-perfect, and suspense-laced dimension to the fascinating life and times of the literary master of morbid, criminal motivation -- Edgar Allan Poe.
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"True! -- vexed -- very dreadfully vexed am I. But why will you say that I am mad?"
"Because you are mad at something, Eddie darling," my young wife endearingly insisted, pausing in the task that had engaged both her energies and attention since our return from breakfast. This was the mending of a small but conspicuous tear in the seat of my trousers, sustained when -- upon arising from the communal dining table -- I had somehow managed to snag the fabric in a small splinter of rattan protruding from the caning of my chair.
"I can't imagine why you're being so sulky," Sissy observed in a gently reproving tone. "Particularly after dining on such heavenly food." Seated in the capacious armchair that occupied a corner of our room -- my perforated garment spread across her lap -- she reapplied herself to her needlework while continuing thusly: "I sincerely hope, however, that you haven't worked yourself into a state over this teensy little hole. Your pants will look as good as new once I've worked my magic upon them."
This remark -- uttered in a spirit of such pure, such artless devotion -- could not fail to lighten, if not entirely dissipate, the angry cloud of gloom that had settled so weightily upon my soul. Garbed in the dressing gown I had donned after divesting myself of my trousers, I gazed warmly at my seraphic soul-mate and whimsically declared: "I fear, darling Sissy, that even your unsurpassed skills as a seamstress cannot restore my attire to such a pristine condition -- not indeed, unless the needle you wield with such consummate dexterity were the magic wand of the fairy enchantress in Perrault's immortal tale of 'Cendrillon,' who -- with a single incantation -- could transform a mere gourd of the variety Cucurbita pepo into a magnificent coach-and-four."
Though meant as a pleasant riposte, this latter remark bore more than a tincture of all-too-bitter truth; for -- owing to my badly straitened circumstances -- the garment upon which Sissy was "working her magic" was in a sadly deteriorated condition, even apart from the injury it had suffered that morning.
"Still," I continued, "it is not this unfortunate -- and exceedingly inopportune -- mishap that has so unsettled my tranquility."
"Then what in the world has?" Sissy exclaimed, her voice betraying the merest hint of impatience.
In his magisterial (if occasionally ponderous) Philosophical Discourses on God, Man, and Destiny, no less an authority than Gottfried von Büchner observes that the most significant occurrences in human history have often sprung from mundane, if not entirely trivial, causes. So it proved with the extraordinary sequence of events it is my present purpose to recount. In attempting to trace the origin of these wild -- these unparalleled -- adventures, I am led inexorably back to that seemingly unremarkable morning on which Sissy and I engaged in the foregoing talk. Before proceeding with my narrative, therefore, I must pause to acquaint the reader with the train of circumstances leading up to the above-cited exchange.
My name is Edgar Allan Poe. For several years prior to the commencement of my tale, I had been residing in Philadelphia with that heaven-sent pair to whom I owed whatever measure of felicity I have known in this life. I mean, of course, my darling wife and soul-mate, Virginia, and her mother, my Aunt Maria Clemm, toward whom I felt all the ardor -- the gratitude -- the sheer, overpowering devotion -- of an adoring son. Completing our household was our handsome female tabby, Cattarina, a creature of such beguiling habits and preternatural intelligence that she was treated less as a mere pet than as a fourth and much-beloved member of the family.
Within the sacred sphere of my domestic circumstances, I enjoyed a nearly perfect contentment. The situation, however, was markedly different as regards my professional affairs. These, indeed, were of a most unsatisfying -- a most insupportable -- nature. In my capacity as editor of Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine, I had managed to increase the circulation of that publication more than fourfold in the two years of my employment. And yet, my accomplishments had received neither proper recognition nor adequate remuneration from the owner. On the contrary. While Mr. Graham had profited mightily from my unceasing labors on behalf of his enterprise, my own salary had remained fixed at the pitiable rate of $800 per annum -- a sum entirely insufficient for the support of myself and my dependents.
Equally egregious was my employer's increasing interference in matters pertaining to the editorial content of the magazine. In particular, he had begun to offer vociferous complaints about the ostensibly insulting character of my critical views -- especially my opinions on the deplorable state of American letters, as well as on the generally vulgar and unformed sensibilities of the public at large. That the occasional asperity of my tone resulted from a sincere desire to elevate the still-rudimentary tastes of my countrymen seemed to matter not a whit to Mr. Graham, whose only concern was to pander to the vanity of his subscribers by assuring them of their (supposed) cultural superiority. At length -- perceiving that, despite my most determined efforts, the magazine was fated to degenerate into yet another namby-pamby assemblage of cloying illustrations, gaudy fashion-plates, treacly love stories, and other such sentimental clap-trap -- I saw no choice but to resign my position.
As the home of the immortal Dr. Franklin -- founder of the first lending library in America, great benefactor of our first public university, and himself the author of a classic (if, at times, overly pedantic) autobiography -- Philadelphia held an illustrious position in the intellectual history of our nation. It had been many years, however, since it could claim preeminence as a center of literary production and publication. That distinction now belonged to the great, bustling metropolis that lay one hundred miles to the northeast. With few or no prospects of employment in the so-called (but, in my experience, sadly misdesignated) "City of Brotherly Love," I thus made the bold resolution to abandon Philadelphia altogether and seek my fortunes among the brash, ambitious literati of New York.
My plan -- arrived at in consultation with my loved ones -- was to depart at once in the company of my darling wife. Muddy* would remain behind with Cattarina, joining us as soon as Sissy and I had located -- and established ourselves in -- a suitable dwelling. Accordingly, late on the afternoon of April 5, 1844, Sissy and I -- after bidding a fervent farewell to our dearest Muddy -- took a hack to the Walnut Street railroad station. After a wait of approximately forty-five minutes -- during which we sat in loving proximity on a hard wooden bench, perusing the most recent edition of the Philadelphia Ledger -- we boarded a train to Perth Amboy, New Jersey. From thence, we set out by steamboat for Manhattan, arriving at our destination on the afternoon of April 6, during an exceedingly violent thunderstorm.
Owing to the severity of the weather -- as well as to the somewhat fragile state of Sissy's health -- I thought it best to leave my dear wife snugly ensconced on the boat, while I went off in search of a lodging house. After stowing our trunks in the Ladies Cabin, I embarked on my quest, stopping first to purchase a blue cotton umbrella from a sidewalk peddler for the somewhat exorbitant price of sixty-two cents. Thus shielded against the driving sheets of rain, I made my way along Greenwich Street and, within minutes, had come upon a somewhat weatherworn but perfectly respectable-looking lodging house, not far from Cedar Street. A room had just become vacant, which the landlady, Mrs. Morrison, was willing to rent at an exceptionally modest rate, considering the desirable location of the house as well as its abundant amenities. We quickly reached an agreement, whereupon I secured a hack and returned to the wharf for Sissy. Altogether, I had not been gone for more than half-an-hour, and she was quite astonished to see me back so soon. With the help of the driver, I loaded our trunks into the carriage; then off we drove to the lodging house.
Settled into our new accommodations, we supped -- slept -- then arose much refreshed and descended to breakfast. While I would not -- contra Sissy -- have characterized our morning meal as heavenly (it being impossible to conceive of such substantial fare as pertaining to the incorporeal realm of the seraphim), it was unquestionably delicious. We had excellent-flavored coffee, hot and strong; elegant tea cakes; a great dish of ham and another of cold veal slices; eggs; cheese; bread-and-butter -- and everything in the greatest profusion. I could not recall the last time I had dined so heartily at breakfast (or, indeed, at any other period of the day).
Had this feast been enjoyed solely in the company of our landlady and her husband -- a fat, good-natured old soul with a remarkable growth of fleecy, gray whiskers -- I would have felt utterly contented. Regrettably, there were a half-dozen other boarders at the table, among whom was a hollow-chested, anemic young clerk named Griswald, who conducted an unintermitting monologue during the course of the meal, despite the fact that his mouth was continuously stuffed with partially masticated food. Even more than the irritating timbre of his voice, the unsightliness of his appearance, and the deplorable quality of his table-manners, however, it was one particular subject of his conversation that had so upset me during that otherwise splendid repast.
Now, as I sat in our room beside Sissy -- who had temporarily suspended her sewing while awaiting my reply to her somewhat exasperated query -- I recalled her attention to that singularly irritating personage. "The blame for my present, disgruntled mood," I observed, "may be laid to the individual who was seated directly across from us at breakfast."
"Mr. Griswald?" Sissy asked, her expression, no less than her tone, conveying genuine surprise. "He did go on a bit. But on the whole, he seemed like a pleasant enough young gentleman."
"I cannot concur with your opinion, dearest Sissy, having found his incessant chatter, no less than his etiquette, intensely disagreeable."
Casting me a mischievous look, my darling wife replied: "Are you sure that you aren't just jealous of all the attention he was giving me?"
"I do not fault him for that," I answered with an indulgent smile. "For such are your charms, dear Sissy, that no man -- not even the most boorish -- could fail to fall under their spell." This observation was no less than simple truth, for -- at twenty-three years of age -- my Virginia had ripened into a surpassingly radiant specimen of womanhood, whose hyacinthine hair -- flawless complexion -- brilliant brown eyes -- harmoniously curved nostrils -- and sweet, dimpled mouth -- combined to create a vision of loveliness more wildly divine than the fantasies which hovered about the slumbering souls of the daughters of Delos.
Flushing with pleasure, Sissy returned to her needlework while stating: "Well, then, I am at a complete loss to explain your crabby mood."
"Do you recall the main subject of young Griswald's conversation?" I inquired.
"Of course," Sissy answered. "He was talking about his recent visit to Mr. Barnum's American Museum. I must say, it sounds like fun."
"If by fun," I replied somewhat caustically, "you intend to signify all that is most vulgar, sensational, and unredeemed by the merest whit of aesthetic value, then I cannot take issue with your statement."
"But you seemed interested in hearing about it, too," Sissy protested. "Didn't you ask to borrow that handbill he was showing around?"
"Very true. The item to which you refer can be found in the right front pocket of my trousers. And if you consult it, you will discover the source of my present distress."
"There!" Sissy exclaimed at that moment, biting off the excess length of thread with her small -- remarkably white -- and perfectly regular -- front incisors. "Now let's see what has made you so grumpy."
Reaching into the pocket I had specified, she extracted a folded sheet of paper, then handed me my trousers. I saw at once that these had been repaired with a skill that would have drawn envious sighs from the swift-fingered spinners of the Kingdom of Han, whose silken cloth -- according to legend -- was woven with such exquisite art that the Emperor Wang-Fo himself felt unworthy to wear a robe fashioned from it.
In consideration of Sissy's maidenly sensibilities, I had, throughout the course of our marriage, maintained the highest standards of modesty and decorum in my relations with her. Now -- in keeping with this practice -- I stepped into a far corner of the room, outside my dear wife's line of vision, before divesting myself of my dressing gown and donning my newly mended pants. I then reseated myself on the edge of our bedstead.
Sissy, in the meantime, continued to peruse the handbill, an expression of intense, childlike pleasure suffusing her face. All at once, she looked at me with wide, scintillant eyes. "What fun!" she exclaimed. "Just listen."
Redirecting her gaze to the handbill, she began to read aloud in a voice that trilled with excitement: "Come see P. T. Barnum's American Museum! The largest amusement enterprise on the face of the globe! A palace of marvel, mystery, and wonder! Novel and astounding exhibitions comprising more than 50,000 curiosities from every portion of the globe, among which are -- the Amazing Murray Midgets, the most diminutive triplets in the world! -- Minnie-Christine, the renowned two-headed lady! -- Hoomie and Iola, the wild Australian children! -- Big Hannah and Big John, the two heaviest people ever known to exist! -- Crowley the Man-Horse, Nature's most astounding freak! -- Waino and Plutano, the Wild Men of Borneo! -- Signor Giovanni and his remarkable troupe of bird actors! -- Dr. Hall's Eskimo dog! -- A living, three-horned bull! -- The Grand Aquarium! -- Miss Zobeide Luti, the Circassian Beauty! -- Count Borulawski's Bohemian glass-blowers! -- "
Interrupting her recitation, she glanced up at me again and said, somewhat breathlessly: "Doesn't it sound grand?"
By way of reply, I screwed my features into an expression of extreme distaste.
"So far as I can see, Eddie," Sissy declared in a gently chiding tone, "there's nothing here that should have upset you in the least. Do you know what I think? I think you just have trouble taking pleasure in things."
"You are wrong, Sissy," I replied. "There are many things from which I derive the deepest -- the most intense -- pleasure, not the least being your own dear self. What I do not appreciate, however," I continued, "is having the sacred memory of a beloved friend exploited for the most crass, pecuniary reasons by a self-confessed charlatan."
"Why, whatever do you mean?" my darling wife cried, her alabaster brow furrowing in confusion.
"If you examine the bottom portion of Mr. Barnum's advertisement," I stated, "you will find out."
Obeying my directive, she turned her gaze to the designated place and, after examining the page silently for a moment, read: "Among the numerous exhibitions of unique educational, historical, and scientific interest, visitors will find such singular attractions as a splendid specimen of a living Ourang Outang from Borneo! -- A child with one body, two arms, two heads, and four legs! -- More than one hundred wax figures of noted personages, including one of Lieutenant-General Scott! -- A curious mortuary memorial to William Henry Harrison, ten feet high and composed of over two million sea shells! -- The head and right arm of Anton Probst, murderer of the Deering family, amputated after execution! -- Phrenological examinations and charts by Prof. Livingston! -- A diorama of the heroic death of Colonel David Crockett, including his actual 'buckskin' clothing, his celebrated rifle 'Ol' Betsy,' and his final farewell letter from the Ala -- "
At that instant, she broke off her recitation with a sharp intake of breath -- raised her head -- and, in a voice barely louder than a whisper, gasped: "Oh, dear." That the dismaying truth had finally dawned upon her awareness was sufficiently plain from her expression.
"So, dear Sissy," I said with a mirthless smile, "there at last is the answer to your question. Now do you see why I am mad?"
Copyright © 2001 by Harold Schechter
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This is the second of the Edgar Allen Poe mysteries written by Harold Schechter. They are such fun! In The Hum Bug, Edgar Allen Poe and P.T. Barnum work together to solve a gruesome murder. Some of Barnum's "Human Curiosities" make up part of the colorful cast. Some of my favorites are the bearded lady, the human skeleton, the alligator boy and the changeling baby. Schechter goes into great detail about P.T. Barnum's fascinating American Museum. It's as if the reader is actually there! The details of the mystery itself will keep the reader guessing as to who the perpetrator is and what the motives were for the murders. It all comes together in the end. The reader watches as everything slowly falls into place. Part of the charm of Schechter's Poe mysteries is the actual writing. He writes in the first person as Edgar Allan Poe and does a fantastic job of capturing the feel of Poe. The Hum Bug left me eager to read the next in the series!
'The difference between the right word and the almost right word,' said Mark Twain, 'is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.' Twain's insight is brilliantly illustrated in Harold Schechter's new novel, The Hum Bug, in which Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) joins forces with P(hineas) T(aylor) Barnum (1810-1891) to track down a psychopath. The most impressive feature of Schechter's novel is not the tale itself, but rather the author's uncanny ability to find precisely 'the right word' for every circumstance. Longtime admirers of Poe (among whom I include myself) are cognizant of Poe's idiosyncratic style: the subtle nuances of his diction and vocabulary; the cadence and rhythm of his sentences; the haunting, melancholy mood of his essays, short stories, and poems; the aesthetic beauty of his poetic prose. Beyond doubt, Schechter has immersed himself in Poe's world. As one reads The Hum Bug, one suspects that the real Poe, as opposed to Schechter's fictional Poe, is actually narrating the tale. Indeed, one wonders if Schechter has purchased a Ouija board and is receiving direct messages from the Great Beyond! For example, here is one of many passages I could cite: 'As the workmen commenced to lower the casket into the yawning pit, I was seized with a sudden paroxysm of dread. Every fiber of my being recoiled from this all-too-vivid demonstration of the hideous end that awaits every mortal. To lie, for all eternity, within the confines of a narrow box, deep inside the earth, surrounded by the unseen but all-pervading presence of the Conqueror Worm! The mere thought of this awful eventuality caused my heart to quail--to cringe--to sicken. I gasped for breath--perspiration burst from every pore--my soul was possessed with a vague yet intolerable anguish!' In lesser hands than those of Schechter, such an audacious first-person narrative by the author of 'The Raven' and 'The Tell-Tale Heart' would degenerate into maudlin purple prose--a ludicrous parody of Poe. On the contrary, Schechter succeeds with remarkable aplomb. The time is 1844 in New York City. The venue is P. T. Barnum's American Museum, a vast assemblage of oddities, curiosities, and monstrosities. The plot centers around the search for a fiendish serial killer who is decapitating beautiful young women and leaving a long-stemmed crimson rose clenched between their teeth. In addition to the well-developed characters of Poe and Barnum, the story features 'Sissy' (Poe's wife: Virginia Clemm Poe); 'Muddy' (Maria Clemm: Poe's aunt and mother-in-law); and the bizarre people who inhabit Barnum's menagerie. Unless you are an astute detective, The Hum Bug will keep you guessing until the end, when the identity of the killer is revealed. Containing many allusions to classical works of literature, The Hum Bug is a crackling good yarn that both amuses and entertains.
Edgar Allan Poe is unable to feed his family on the wages he makes as a journalist/editor in Philadelphia. He relocates, with his family, to New York City where writing opportunities are much better. When he sees a handbill for the P.T. Barnum¿s American Circus, Edgar turns irate because he knows that at least one falsehood exists on the handbill he was given. He confronts Barnum, but obtains nothing but blarney from the glib talker. Barnum is very impressed with Poe and visits the writer in his home when the media blames Barnum¿s American circus for causing a murder to happen. Poe who has solved murders before (SEE NEVERMORE) agrees to investigate. When the victim¿s missing arm is mailed to Poe¿s home, he concludes he is on the correct path and if can stay alive long enough he will solve the case. Poe is clearly the star of this book as he uses his belief in his superior brain power to slice and dice everyone using self-deprecation so nobody will be offended. The HUMBUG is a serious historical mystery though Barnum lightens up the atmosphere with his unique brand of showmanship. Though a nineteenth century who-done-it, mystery lovers of all sub-genre persuasions will enjoy Harold Schecter¿s tale. Harriet Klausner