This is my third Bayard novel so far, and I have found each more exciting than the next. The Pale Blue Eye is not only a first-rate crime thriller and a slice of well-researched history, but as beautifully written as the poetry and prose of the American icon who appears as one of the novel’s main characters, the enigmatic Edgar Allan Poe.
As in his earlier novels reviewed here by me, Mr. Timothy and The Black Tower, Bayard’s approach is to create a fictional character to serve as the foil for his historical character, and weaves around them both a plot of exceptional intrigue while perfectly capturing the 19th century period in which he centers his stories. In this story, he creates Augustus Landor, a reclusive widower and former police detective who has moved to the upper Hudson valley of New York to recover from tuberculosis and is called upon by Sylvanus Thayer, known as the “Father of West Point,” to quietly investigate the murder and mutilation of first one, and then a second cadet at the famous Academy.
Landor reluctantly comes out of his seclusion and accepts the charge, but asks for first year cadet Edgar Allan Poe to assist him in his investigations, and the two highly intelligent but hard-drinking misfits–one a cynical loner and the other a friendless poet—eventually pursue the clues to the doorstep of the Marquis family, whose head is the Academy’s physician, whose son is a charismatic fourth-year cadet at West Point, and whose daughter captures Poe’s heart along the way.
The book’s chapters mostly take the form of narratives or reports on the investigation which alternate from the pens of Landor and Poe, and Bayard captures the incisive tone of the detective’s observations and the poetical genius of the lovelorn poet with equal brilliance. The novel’s many characters are made so real to the reader that one experiences the manic-depression of Mrs. Marquis as exquisitely as one does the desperation of Academy commander Hitchcock to clear the name of West Point in the face of the (historically true) campaign by the Andrew Jackson presidency to shut it down.
The bulk of the novel is devoted to setting the stage, giving us a feel for the Academy’s rigid regimen, the harsh winter, the brutal murders, and very slowly builds suspense as the focus of the investigation shifts from one suspect to the next, the clues slowly accrue, and Poe and Landor’s friendship evolves into something profound. The many layers of the story—the murder investigation, Poe’s love affair, Poe’s relationship with the detective, the fate of West Point itself—give a satisfying depth to this novel, and the climax—the real climax, that is—is as stunningly presented as it is totally unexpected.