AN UNPARDONABLE CRIME
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The prolific Taylor (the Roth trilogy, etc.) successfully channels Wilkie Collins in his latest effort, crafting a fluid, atmospheric period thriller. Thomas Shield is a young schoolmaster in Stoke Newington, just outside of London, whose charges include 10-year-old Edgar Allan Poe (as a child, the poet spent five years in England) and a pampered banker's son. The school's routine is disrupted when Shield runs across an eccentric character who displays an unhealthy interest in the two boys. His intervention brings Shield into closer contact with the banker's family and two desirable women. Uncomfortably occupying an uncertain position between master and servant, Shield juggles his instincts for self-preservation with his passions, a task made much harder when the severely mutilated corpse of the banker is discovered shortly after his business collapses. While the murder appears to give Shield a clear path to court the attractive widow, he is unable to ignore clues suggesting that the body is actually someone else's. The enigmatic nature of the protagonist—a principled but often passive figure—distances him from the reader. Although Taylor does an excellent job in portraying early 19th-century London and writes in a clear, consistent period style, the numerous foreboding references suggest a dramatic psychological twist or a surprising revelation concerning the killer's identity that does not materialize. The use of Poe as a character borders on gratuitous, despite the author's incorporation of biographical details; the youth is peripheral to the plot, and a fictional character could have been substituted with little discernible effect. While this effort is not as successful as Charles Palliser's superb, intricately plotted 19th-century thriller The Quincunx , it is a pleasurable read that will engross many. (Mar.)