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Not Quite Dead
by John MacLachlan Gray
St. Martin's Minotaur
304 pages, $31.00

Vancouver's John MacLachlan Gray made his name in the 1970s and '80s as a playwright and actor, primarily though Billy Bishop Goes to War, the world-famous musical revue which he wrote and performed with Eric Peterson. In the mid-'90s, Gray decided to quit the theatre after a 25-year career that had brought him to Broadway, London's West End, and Canada's premier stages. Along the way, he had earned a Governor-General's Award, a Golden Globe, and induction into the Order of Canada. In his "retirement," he turned to novel writing, and hasn't looked back since.

After publishing a modern-day thriller set in Vancouver called A Gift for the Little Master in 2000, Gray turned his attention to the Victorian era with two excellent historical thrillers set in the rather squalid London of the 1850s: 2003's A Fiend in Human, which introduced a tortured and tormented journalist, Edmund Whitty, on the trail of Jack the Ripper; and 2005's White Stone Day, which also featured Whitty, along with a character closely resembling the well-known author Lewis Carroll, who may or may not have been involved in child pornography during the nascent days of photography.

In his new novel, Not Quite Dead, Gray shifts his focus across the Atlantic to the United States, but leaves behind none of his ability for crafting uncanny historical detail nor his touch for describing squalor and degradation. Set predominantly in Baltimore and Philadelphia in 1849, Not Quite Dead is an intriguing and complex thriller that draws together Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens in an improbable yet highly entertaining story.

The novel is built around the idea that Edgar Allan Poe did not actually die on October 7, 1849 as is generally believed. History has it that Poe passed away after being admitted to hospital in a delirious state, having been found in a Baltimore gutter. No death certificate or hospital records exist, however, and his doctor's credibility has been called into question by numerous biographers.

Gray doesn't seem to believe it either, writing on his website: "When Edgar Allan Poe was discovered in front of a tavern in Baltimore supposedly near death, he was not wearing his own clothes, and the body recorded was two inches taller than Poe's army records. And the photograph of Poe in his coffin doesn't look like other photographs of the writer, at least not to me."

This was apparently enough inspiration for the author to imagine Poe faking his own death, as well as a chain of events that would bring him together with Charles Dickens, who is visiting the U.S. on a promotional tour. Gray even envisions Poe and Dickens collaborating on a rewrite of the final chapter of David Copperfield--a hilarious scene in which Poe conducts an academic interrogation of a befuddled Dickens, employing the type of literary deconstruction that would not be out of place in a contemporary university seminar.

Given the black-and-white cover photo featuring a croaking raven and the title of the novel itself, which refers to Poe's faked death, readers might expect this book to focus on the American author, perhaps even feature him as its protagonist. Instead, Gray chooses to tell most of this tale through the eyes of Dr. William Chivers, a childhood friend of Poe's who treats him on the night of his supposed death.

Chivers is an excellent protagonist because he is tormented by a lifetime of self-perceived inadequacy, mainly because of living in Poe's shadow. Chivers' voice is highly unreliable and extremely entertaining. He often describes himself as an abstemious "son of Temperance," for example, but this doesn't seem to stop him from taking a "medicinal" Scotch from time to time.

Just as he did in his earlier Victorian thrillers, Gray fills out the background of this tale with impeccable period details, but doesn't let them get in the way of the story. His Philadelphia of 1849, with overflowing slums and neighbourhoods controlled by gangs of thugs, evokes the same sense of terror and tumult depicted in Scorcese's Gangs of New York. One gang leader is particularly memorable for his tendency to gouge his enemies' eyeballs right out of their sockets. As disturbing as that sounds, this book is also shot through with humour, especially in the banter between characters, where Gray shows off his playwriting chops yet again, penning dialogue that often begs to be read aloud.

All in all, Not Quite Dead is an entertaining read, with vividly realized characters, a compelling story, and a vision of Victorian-era America that seems unique and fresh.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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