Monday, December 29, 2008

Off Topic Novel---A Novel of Detection Set at West Point, 1830

The Pale Blue Eye, Louis Bayard, $24.95 hardcover, $14.95 softcover, 432pp., Harper Collins, 2006.

At West Point Academy in the autumn 1830 a cadet commits suicide by hanging. While being stored in an icehouse the dead man's heart is removed. West Point neighbor and retired NYC policeman, Augustus Landor is asked by academy adminstrators to discreetly investigate. At risk is the academy's fledgling reputation. Landor enlists the aid of cadet E. A. Poe. Yes, that E. A. Poe who was indeed a West Point cadet at that time. The New Yorker and the Virginia are certainly a different Holmes-Watson pair of investigators.

Landor has his sorrows; both his wife and his daughter died soon after relocating from New York City to the Hudson River Valley. Superintendent Thayer has his priorities. Poe has his metaphors and insider inforamtion on the student body. The trio find themselves confronting a second murder and mutiliation. Clues, codes, and cults are examined and psychological suspense ensues. This reader suspended his disbelief in due time but also found a few outlandish developments that made him wince. But, Bayard's delightfully executed period prose and details were thoroughly enjoyable and returned this reader to his required disbelief. The meticulously described historical setting, the young Poe's literary inspirations, and Lander's veiled confessions provided incentive to bear with the slightly preposterous intrustions from the 1980s, such as the possiblity of a Satanic cult. These intrusions are rare and the plot does not hinge upon them.

Overall, The Pale Blue Eye is enjoyable because the plot hangs together, and the characters of Landor, Poe and Thayer are well described and compelling. The details of Benny Haven's Tavern and West Point's dining and residence halls appear accurate. The main detraction is a cinematically overwrought climax which fortunately is not the conclusion of the novel. Poe is not only a poet but a detective and uncovers the policeman's secrets at the very end.

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