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A Homage to 19th Century American Writer and Poet, Edgar Allan Poe

  • Oct 19, 2009
In this interesting but somewhat glacially paced fiction (for much of the tale anyway), Louis Bayard does a yeoman's job of recreating the atmosphere and feel of early 19th century America, right down to its characteristic literary voice. Yet the mystery, itself, is peculiar for most of the way through, being not highly mysterious as one can pretty much guess who the suspicions of retired New York constable Augustus Landor will light on well before they light. More, too much of the tale is taken up with Landor's musings and seemingly pointless digressions.

It's the addition of West Point freshman cadet Edgar A. Poe, however, that gives the tale resonance thanks to Bayard's colorful portrayal of the youthful dissolute and aspiring poet in the supporting role vouchsafed him in this novel. Recruited to aid the retired constable, young Mr. Poe is nicely drawn and even convincing, in his period romanticism, as the two "detectives" set out to discover the perpetrators of an apparent murder of a West Point cadet, in what seems to have been rigged to look like a suicide, and to discover the miscreants behind the subsequent desecration of the corpse and how the two deeds may be connected.

Nevertheless, though the upper New York environs and ambience are handled with great attention to detail, this novel's nod to 19th century sensibilities comes off as overdone in places, slowing the read more often than aiding it. At times, in fact, the author's choice of phrases seems almost too precious, as if he were trying just a mite too hard to capture the era and its voice. In fact, Poe, himself, who apparently inspired this novel, achieved the effects he did with much shorter narratives even while indulging in just such 19th century meanderings. In a tautly written piece which a mystery or thriller must be, there is only so much meandering a narration can sustain.

Equally as disappointing, the unraveling of the primary mystery in the final quarter of the book is done with a near-pulp sensibility, being overwrought and drawn out to the point where you find yourself going on just to be done with it. Nor are the motives of the the culprits satisfactorily exposed or explained at the denouement and one is left with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. But in a final homage to a Poesian sensibility, the author has a further twist in mind which he only unveils in the final pages, a twist that changes the whole tone and tenor of the story, echoing Poe's own penchant for surprise and dark endings steeped in madness. There isn't much that can be said about it without destroying the effect so I'll offer no more, but suffice it to say that, if you can stick with the long and often ponderous narrative, despite its heavy-handed affectations, interspersing the testimony of Landor with that of his peculiar assistant, Cadet Poe, the abrupt revelation at the tale's end makes the story a worthwhile read.

Until that point I had determined on a much less warm endorsement here. But the unexpected reversal via the final revelations, however heavy-handed in their own right, proved surprise enough to reverse my opinion of what might otherwise have been an undistinguished period mystery whose main claim to fame had been the inclusion of a still young and wet-behind-the-ears Edgar Allan Poe.


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December 17, 2009
Funny ... I might have made much the same comments as you did but, overall, my reaction to Bayard's approach was much more favourable than yours. Good job on the review.
October 19, 2009
Stuart, I'll have to pass this review along to @cenobite7, he made a list of his Favorite Writers and Edgar Allan Poe is on it. Great review as always!
More The Pale Blue Eye: A Novel reviews
Quick Tip by . December 30, 2010
A richly complex gothic mystery, a psychological thriller, a compelling period historical fiction, THE PALE BLUE EYE is a fictionalized re-creation of a brief segment of the life of West Point Academy cadet, horror and sci-fi author Edgar Allan Poe, as a young man in 1830.
Quick Tip by . June 10, 2010
Interesting mystery enhanced by a humanized Edgar Allen Poe character. Poe makes the book.
review by . December 17, 2009
In "Mr Timothy", Louis Bayard penned an exceptional debut novel that imagined the life of one of Dickens' best known characters, Tiny Tim. His second novel, "The Pale Blue Eye" is a worthy successor - a literary masterwork that easily vaults over the high bar of expectations created by the phenomenal success of "Mr Timothy".       "The Pale Blue Eye", at once a richly complex gothic mystery, a psychological thriller and compelling period …
review by . October 26, 2009
Blue eyed girl
As 2009 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, it's fitting that the interests of several novelists have turned to him. Louis Bayard chose to depict Poe in a little known segment of his life, his tenure as a cadet at West Point. The mystery revolves around the death by hanging of one of Poe's classmates. Retired NYC detective Gus Landor is brought in by the Superintendent to solve the crime, and he enlists the aid of silver-tongued Cadet Poe as his inside informer. As …
review by . March 18, 2009
The Pale Blue Eye
    When Gus Landor, a retired constable, is called to West Point to investigate a gruesome crime, he has no idea how his life will be affected by those he meets and the strange turn of events that send an unusual crime into the realm of the bizarre. A young cadet is found hanging, begging the question of suicide because Leroy Fry's legs are still touching the ground in spite of the rope around his neck. To make matters worse, the body is stolen before it can be attended, found …
review by . July 20, 2007
Most Poe fans are aware that the poet spent a short time at West Point, before being court-martialed and dismissed. This author's plot takes place during that brief time, and involves Poe in helping a retired New York City detective to solve one murder, which eventually evolves into two. The writing is crisp and the plot moves along quickly. The author has captured as well as possible the unusual nature of Poe, and all of the other main figures are extremely well-drawn. This is an exciting mystery, …
About the reviewer
Stuart W. Mirsky ()
Ranked #230
I'm a retired bureaucrat (having served, most recently, as an Assistant Commissioner in amunicipal agency in a major Northeastern American city). In 2002 I took an early retirement to pursue a lifelong … more
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Starred Review.Bayard followsMr. Timothy(2003), which brilliantly imagined the adult life of Dickens's Tiny Tim, with another tour-de-force, an intense and gripping novel set during Edgar Allan Poe's brief time as a West Point cadet. In 1830, retired New York City detective Gus Landor is living a quiet life at his Hudson Valley cottage, tormented by an unspecified personal sorrow, when Superintendent Thayer summons him to West Point to investigate the hanging and subsequent mutilation of a cadet. Poe aids Landor by serving as an inside source into the closed world of the academy, though Poe's personal involvement with a suspect's sister complicates their work. But the pair find themselves helpless to prevent further outrages; the removal of the victims' hearts suggests that a satanic cult might be at work. This beautifully crafted thriller stands head and shoulders above other recent efforts to fictionalize Poe.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.--This text refers to theHardcoveredition.
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ISBN-10: 0060733977
ISBN-13: 978-0060733971
Author: Louis Bayard
Publisher: HarperCollins (May 23, 2006)

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