Gus Landor, a retired New York police detective, is dying, and he writes the account of his last case in The Pale Blue Eye. Gus is a lonely widower who earlier moved up to the mountains near the Hudson Valley with his wife and daughter to help improve his lungs. But his wife died within a year, and his daughter left him soon after. So, Gus lives as a veritable hermit.
On an October morning in 1830, an officer from West Point fetches him. The body of a cadet named Fry was found hanged the night before, presumably a suicide, but during the night his body was stolen and later he was found with his heart removed. Superintendent Thayer and Commander Hitchcock wish to hire Landor to find who stole the heart. Landor is quick to figure out that Fry did not commit suicide but was murdered. A mysterious message clutched in his hand seems to indicate an assignation.
Landor soon realizes that his investigations on the reservation will be sorely hampered without the assistance of an inside man. So, he asks for the help of an unusual cadet he has met who is not in good favor with the academy–Cadet Edgar Allan Poe.
This is a clever novel with a macabre mystery that would have been completely to Poe’s taste. Just when we think everything is figured out, Bayard presents us with a twist. His portrait of the young Poe, bombastic, ridiculously romantic, and fearfully intelligent, is a great pleasure.
I would only fault the novel for a slow-paced middle section, and only because Landor doesn’t seem to be doing anything. Most of the plot is driven forward by Poe’s reports, which begin to dwell on his infatuation with a lovely young woman, Lea, the daughter of the post doctor, who unfortunately suffers from the “falling sickness,” or epilepsy.
Of course, Landor is doing something–he’s deciphering Fry’s diary–but since he doesn’t relate its revelations, his investigation seems to flag, and he barely seems to look into a second death, with a second missing heart. Otherwise, the novel is well written, with well-developed and interesting characters and a surprising ending.