Tuesday, February 28, 2012

2007 Edgar Nominee: The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard

The Pale Blue Eye
By Louis Bayard

     The Pale Blue Eye was a nominee for the 2007 Edgar for best mystery novel as selected by The Mystery Writers of America.  Louis Bayard has constructed a magnificent tribute to the master himself, Edgar Allan Poe, the great American author who is regarded as the inventor of the detective story. 

    This novel is set in 1831 at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  A cadet is found suspended from a tree by a noose.  It appears to be a suicide, but some of the circumstances don’t add up.  Shortly after the body is brought to the hospital for autopsy it is desecrated.  Someone brutally removes the heart from the corpse.  The purpose of this act is as baffling to the authorities as the death itself and puts the suicide hypothesis in severe doubt.  The commandant calls in retired New York City detective Augustus Landor to investigate.  Confidentiality is stressed as Landor accepts the challenge of solving the crime.  An odd, older cadet comes to Landor’s attention and he enlists this cadet as a spy of sorts, a mole to acquire inside information from within the Academy.  The older cadet is none other than Edgar Allen Poe.  Poe is an eccentric, sleeping little, disobeying rules at every opportunity and channeling poetry from his dead mother.  He is convinced that these poems hold clues to the identity of the killer.  The sense of urgency to solve the crime is heightened when yet another cadet dies and his heart is stolen as well.  The investigation focuses on the family Dr. Marquis, the Academy physician.  The doctor’s son Artemus is an upper classman and a close friend of the first victim.  Mrs. Marquis is a peculiar woman prone to disabling headaches and inappropriate bizarre behavior.  The centerpiece of this dysfunctional family is Miss Lea Marquis, a not quite beautiful spinster.  At the age of 23 she no longer is viewed as a potential spouse for the younger cadets, but she does catch the eye of Cadet Poe.  Poe has a habit of including poetry with the reports he prepares on his clandestine research for Landor.  One of these works speaks of “the pale blue eye” which happens to match the eye color of Miss Lea.   The motive for these crimes remains as much a mystery as the identity of the killer, but the removal of the hearts makes Landor assume that there may be a Satanic cult at work.  Indeed, some of Poe’s information supports that hypothesis.  The book moves along through this interplay between Landor and Poe, the case against the Marquis building with each page.  Suspicion shifts from one Marquis family member to another and eventually falls even on Cadet Poe.  The ending is totally unanticipated and surprising, although in retrospect, completely believable.  There are clues to the mystery’s solution, although there are an equal number of distracters from the actual perpetrator as well.  The construction of this story is very clever indeed and I, for one, never saw the true ending coming.

     The Pale Blue Eye is a monument to Edgar Allen Poe.  Not only is he a key character in the plot, but the story itself pays homage to the greatest Poe traditions.  It is told in the first person by Detective Landor.  This is the same perspective which Poe uses in most of his stories.  The story is very dark with a lot of the action occurring at night, much like Poe’s.  Louis Bayard uses the same sorts of imagery as Poe to set tone.   The drum beats of the morning cadet assembly casts a sense of foreboding and is reminiscent of the heartbeat in “The Tell Tale Heart”.  There is a scene towards the end of the book where the author creates a fatal cascade of ice which evokes the final fiery scene from “The Fall of the House of Usher”.  Poe uses dangerous and frightening water in stories such as “Silence – A Fable” or in the novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and Bayard uses the turbulent Hudson River in the climactic gripping conclusion to this novel.   Indeed the subject matter here, ruthless and barbaric murders without clear motive, is reminiscent of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”.  Imbibing of excess alcohol is a problem for Mr. Landor, as it was for this fictional and the real-life Edgar Allan Poe.    

     This is a historical novel of the first order.   The writing is comparable to the best prose of Poe himself.  The descriptions and details are meticulous and create vivid visual images for the reader.  The first person perspective makes the reader become almost part of the story.  Landor addresses the reader directly in several passages.  You are led from one area of suspicion to another and yet the resolution of the plot at the end is as shocking and surprising as it is tragic.   

     The author has carefully researched the history of West Point.  The characters, including Colonel Thayer and Commandant Hitchcock, are historically correct.  Edgar Allan Poe was, indeed, a cadet at West Point in 1831.  He enlisted there shortly after his foster mother passed away and was dismissed after only one year.  The murders are pure fiction.

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