The Pale Blue Eye
In the icy, punishing early winter of 1830, members of West Point's corps of cadets are losing heart. Or, more specifically, hearts. "What remained of his chest, this was red. A number of different reds, depending on where it had been torn and where it had simply been opened." With this grisly spectrum of scarlet, Louis Bayard opens his murder mystery The Pale Blue Eye. It's the beginning of a wave of mutilation, as someone plucks organs from their fleshy nests.
Police constable Gus Landor, recently abandoned by his adored daughter and living near the military academy in a quiet rural retreat, is pressed into the duties of narrator and detective. His territory is not the familiar West Point of gleaming brass buttons and flags crisply flapping in a sunny American sky. Rather he works the case from precarious cliff-top trails overlooking the long, gray line of the Hudson River.The land is grim and foreboding, the accommodations dark, cold, and primitive.
Comic relief warms up this chill atmosphere in the absurd form of Cadet Poe, a young man with a high sense of drama and personal destiny who attaches himself to Gus Landor like a pesky kid brother. The older man, his spirit weighed down by a terrible secret of his own, finds solace in the imagination and energy of the tirelessly curious Poe. They soon become a team, with Poe searching for clues from inside the corps while Landor walks the West Point grounds, digesting and then ruminating on every new fact.
The high-strung Poe is Bayard's resurrection of American writer and poet Edgar Allen Poe, who truly did attend West Point for a few forgettable months. Gang pressing prominent authors into posthumous literary service has become a literary hobby in recent seasons. Since Michael Cunningham enlisted Virginia Woolf to great critical acclaim, John Banville, Colm Tobin, and David Lodge all claimed Henry James, and Julian Barnes borrowed a schoolboy Arthur Conan Doyle. Perhaps this trend—a sly way of piggybacking on an established brand—has gone far enough. It recalls Owen Wilson's pompous author in The Royal Tenenbaums explaining of his latest work, "Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn, but what this book presupposes is—maybe he didn't." (In a similarly subversive spirit, Bayard's previous novel imagined the seedy adult life of Dickens's Tiny Tim.)
Yet The Pale Blue Eye isn't freighted with literary pretensions (in this, the book might best resemble Frederick Busch's lurid mystery The Night Inspector, which enjoys a suitably nocturnal cameo from Melville.) The Poe character is fun: goofy and grandiose, ridiculously theatrical and romantic, a flesh- and-blood presence with enough heart to make up for all the organs disappearing from his classmates. And for Poe-toasters, Bayard has sparely seeded the story with, uh, "real-life" influences for the writer's art. The pale blue eye of the title belongs to Poe's love interest, the tragic, passionate Lea (Lenore, if you will). The maiden's brother happens to be the prime suspect in the murders, and as Poe and his aging mentor home in on the siblings, a weird and creepy family portrait of secrets, seizures, and Satanism emerges.
Writes Poe, spying on his lady and her brother as part of his Boy Detective role, "I beheld the pair...falling into each other's arms. Which of the siblings had assumed the part of comforter and which the part of comforted, I could not ascertain. From the Gordian knot of their bodies no sound could escape—no word—no sigh."
The reader could be forgiven for wondering if this territory isn't more House of Yes than House of Usher. Bayard indeed has a gift for weaving moods. Dangerous moonlight chases and shadowy figures pump adrenaline through one scene, while in the next, the reader enjoys a respite at a dinner party where the only peril involves the failure of glue under a fake mustache. In the end, The Pale Blue Eye delivers a smart revelation that will compel a second reading of key passages. Which is another way of saying that Bayard does a masterly job of concealing his telltale heart.