I’ve been wanting to read Louis Bayard’s book since it came out two years ago. Spending time recently in the Hudson River Valley, in the vicinity of West Point, made me want to read it now.
I did not expect to find the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, founded in 1802, especially interesting. But I found myself genuinely intrigued by the rich history of the place, bound up as it is with the history of this country. The Pale Blue Eye is set at “the Point” and its immediate environs. It is a tale of murder and revenge, with a strange, rococo twist at the end.
The year is 1830. Widower Gus Landor lives alone in a cottage in Buttermilk Falls, amid the gorgeous scenery of the Hudson River Valley. During the years he served on New York City’s police force, Landor gained a reputation as an exceptionally resourceful sleuth. He has left the city for retirement in the “Hudson Highlands” partly to escape the trappings and burdens of his former profession. But his renown has followed him to his new dwelling place.
Superintendent Thayer of West Point finds himself dealing with a bizarre sequence of events: the suicide of a cadet, followed the desecration of the hapless young man’s body. Powerful voices abroad in the land are already questioning West Point’s right to exist. This scandal-in-the-making could strike at the very foundation of the Academy.
Needing an investigator who is both intelligent and discreet, Thayer calls on Gus Landor. Somewhat reluctantly Landor agrees to the undertaking, but he has some requirements of his own. He needs, he asserts, the assistance of another cadet, a young man with preternatural gifts. His name is Edgar Allan Poe, and it would be hard to find a youth with a finer mind, albeit possessed of a feverish, romantic temperament that renders him almost completely unsuited to the rigors and regimentation of military life. Landor’s request is acceded to, and the inquiry swiftly gets under way.
And stalls almost at once. The post mortem examination of the deceased cadet, described in fascinating if gruesome detail, yields little in the way of useful knowledge. Meanwhile, more horrors, equally baffling, come to light.
Louis Bayard succeeds completely in evoking a past time and place. This is, of course, the principal act of artistic conjuring that one hopes to experience in a work of historical fiction (or in a work of history, for that matter). The writing is graceful; the story compelling. And if Bayard goes a bit grand guignol at the end, well, I for one am prepared to make allowances.
A number of lengthy, discursive letters and reports purportedly written by Poe appear in the narrative. While reading one of them, I experienced a thrill of recognition. See if you do too:
“Had there been a lantern at my disposal, I might have had the means to put my fears at rest. Alas, with vision so effectually stymied, I had only the evidence of those other senses, which, by way of compensation, had stimulated into overacuteness, so that there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.
Yes! That last line comes word for word from “The Tell-Tale Heart.” (You can see, from this passage, how skillfully Bayard emulates Poe’s ornate prose style.)
During our tour of West Point this past August, our guide mentioned several well known personages who attended the Academy but never graduated. Edgar Allan Poe was one of that number. (The painter James McNeill Whistler was another.)
I look forward to seeing Louis Bayard, among others, at Bouchercon next week.