February 20, 2007

BOOKS: The Pale Blue Eye, Louis Bayard (2006)

In 1830, the body of a West Point cadet is found hanging from a tree, an apparent suicide. The next morning, it is discovered that the body has been stolen from the morgue; when it is found, the heart has been removed.

West Point is still a new institution, and there are those in Washington who would seize this opportunity to shut it down; hoping to solve the mystery quickly, Academy officials approach retired New York City constable Gus Landor and ask him to investigate. Landor soon realizes that he will need eyes and ears within the Academy, and recruits an eager cadet named Edgar Allen Poe to serve as his assistant.

I am not, in general, a fan of "let's plop a historical figure into a fictional mystery" stories. There's almost always a moment in which the historical figure is set up to look like the killer, and those red-herring moments never work precisely because they're historical figures and we know that they never actually committed murder. That moment is no less distracting here.

I was also unconvinced by the climactic confrontation, which goes a bit overboard on the occult in ways that I didn't think had been adequately prepared (to be sure, an emphasis on the occult isn't inappropriate for a novel that features Poe as a major character); and the final twist at the ending is of a kind that's not nearly as surprising (but is just as annoying) as it was 80 years ago.

Still, The Pale Blue Eye is quite well written; the prose evokes the early 19th century without mimicking it so closely as to be unreadable by contemporary audiences, and Bayard does a particularly good job of capturing Poe's voice in the chapters written from his point of view. Landor and Poe are sharply drawn characters, and the relationship that develops between them -- equal parts best pals, close brothers, and father-son -- is interesting.

Mixed feelings, but I think the strengths outweigh the flaws here, and those who are fans of the historical-figure mystery sub-genre will probably find the balance even more in Bayard's favor.

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