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The Pale Blue Eye: A Novel


The Pale Blue Eye: A Novel Cover




Chapter One
Narrative of Gus Landor

My professional involvement in the West Point affair dates from the morning of October the twenty-sixth, 1830. On that day, I was taking my usual walk — though a little later than usual — in the hills surrounding Buttermilk Falls. I recall the weather as being Indian summer. The leaves gave off an actual heat, even the dead ones, and this heat rose through my soles and gilded the mist that banded the farmhouses. I walked alone, threading along the ribbons of hills . . . the only noises were the scraping of my boots and the bark of Dolph van Corlaer's dog and, I suppose, my own breathing, for I climbed quite high that day. I was making for the granite promontory that the locals call Shadrach's Heel, and I had just curled my arm round a poplar, preparing for the final assault, when I was met by the note of a French horn, sounding miles to the north.

A sound I'd heard before — hard to live near the Academy and not hear it — but that morning, it made a strange buzz in my ear. For the first time, I began to wonder about it. How could a French horn throw its sound so far?

This isn't the sort of matter that occupies me, as a rule. I wouldn't even bother you with it, but it goes some way to showing my state of mind. On a normal day, you see, I wouldn't have been thinking about horns. I wouldn't have turned back before reaching the summit, and I wouldn't have been so slow to grasp the wheel traces.

Two ruts, each three inches deep, and a foot long. I saw them as I was wending home, but they were thrown in with everything else: an aster, a chevron of geese. The compartments leaked, as it were, one into the other, so that I only half regarded these wheel ruts, and I never (this is unlike me) followed the chain of causes and effects. Hence my surprise, yes, to breast the brow of the hill and find, in the piazza in front of my house, a phaeton with a black bay harnessed to it.

On top was a young artilleryman, but my eye, trained in the stations of rank, had already been drawn to the man leaning against the coach. In full uniform, he was — preening as if for a portrait. Braided from head to toe in gold: gilt buttons and a gilt cord on his shako, a gilded brass handle on his sword. Outsunning the sun, that was how he appeared to me, and such was the cast of my mind that I briefly wondered if he had been made by the French horn. There was the music, after all. There was the man. A part of me, even then — I can see this — was relaxing, in the way that a fist slackens into its parts: fingers, a palm.

I at least had this advantage: the officer had no idea I was there. Some measure of the day's laziness had worked its way into his nerves. He leaned against the horse, he toyed with the reins, flicking them back and forth in an echo of the bay's own switching tail. Eyes half shut, head nodding on its stem. . . .

We might have gone on like this for some time — me watching, him being watched — had we not been interrupted by a third party. A cow. Big blowzy lashy. Coming out of a copse of sycamores, licking away a smear of clover. This cow began at once to circle the phaeton — with rare tact — she seemed to presume the young officer must have good reason for intruding. This same officer took a step backward as though to brace for a charge, and his hand, jittered, went straight to his sword handle. I suppose it was the possibility of slaughter (whose?) that finally jarred me into motion — down the hill in a long waggish stride, calling as I went.

"Her name is Hagar!"

Too well trained to whirl, this officer. He depended his head toward me in brief segments, the rest of him following in due course.

"At least, she answers to that," I said. "She got here a few days after I did. Never told me her name, so I had to give her one."

He managed something like a smile. He said, "She's a fine animal, sir."

"A republican cow. Comes as she pleases, goes the same. No obligations on either side."

"Well. There you . . . it occurs to me if . . ."

"If only all females were that way, I know."

This young man was not so young as I had thought. A couple of years on the good side of forty, that was my best guess: only a decade younger than me, and still running errands. But this errand was his one sure thing. It squared him from toe to shoulder.

"You are Augustus Landor, sir?" he asked.

"I am."

"Lieutenant Meadows, at your service."


Cleared his throat — twice, he did that. "Sir, I am here to inform you that Superintendent Thayer requests an audience with you."

"What would be the nature of this audience?" I asked.

"I'm not at liberty to say, sir."

"No, of course not. Is it of a professional order?"

"I'm not at — "

"Then might I ask when this audience is to take place?"

"At once, sir. If you're so inclined."

I confess it. The beauty of the day was never so lucid to me as at that moment. The peculiar smokiness of the air, so rare for late October. The mist, lying in drifts across the forelands. There was a woodpecker hammering out a code on a paperbark maple. Stay.

With my walking stick, I pointed in the direction of my door. "You're sure I can't fix you up with some coffee, Lieutenant?"

"No thank you, sir."

"I've got some ham for frying, if you — "

"No, I've eaten. Thank you."

I turned away. Took a step toward the house.

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nancorbett, November 16, 2006 (view all comments by nancorbett)
The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard is, like the writings of one of his characters, a tale of mystery and imagination. Set at West Point in the 19th Century, the novel has all the flavor and ambiance befitting such a setting. I love reading books that fictionalize real people. Bayard fictionalizes the leadership of West Point at that time, as well as one of the most eccentric writers in American history.

The chief investigator of this mystery/detective novel enlists one Cadet Edgar Allen Poe to assist him in his investigation. Bayard brings Poe to life to a greater extent than he does with any of his other characters. Reading the chapters of Poe's reports to Gus Landor, the chief investigator of this creepy, mysterious case, I couldn't help but think that Bayard was having a lot of fun at Poe's expense. Bayard does an excellent job of writing Poe's reports to Landor in a tongue-in-cheek faux-Poe.

Even though the story line has every creepy element conceivable, mysterious murders, hearts stolen from corpses, villains stealing through the darkness in cloaks, mysterious strangers, disappearing cadets and a graveyard of other things, whenever Poe walked off the page, it all turned dull. Bayard tried to make his protagonist interesting. Gus Landor, an ex-New York detective with a mysterious past (I'm getting tired of using the word mysterious) and a bend toward alcoholism leads the investigation. Throughout the book, Landor looked up at me from the page, wanting me to care about him. I just couldn't. He wasn't likeable or interesting.

The Pale Blue Eye feels like a guy book. If we have Chick-Lit, here is an example of Dick-Lit. Distinctive brown cover, technical tools on the cover, and mahogany tones and pipe smoke throughout. All of the women characters are difficult to bring into focus. They're silly little things, panting for attention and totally oblivious about how trivial they are. Even the one with the biggest part to play didn't place a shred of passion on the side of sanity. Landor has a cookie-cutter girl friend, a barmaid who is sleeping with scores of others. She is there so that we can have bosoms swaying to the rhythm of pot scrubbing and because we need someone who looks at him with distain and tells him to quit the case because it's killing him.

And then there's the end. Don't worry. I won't give it away. But I will tell you that there's a twist. And it's not foreshadowed to an extent where it is warranted. In other words, Bayard broke the cardinal rule of novel writing. I felt manipulated. The twist comes from so far out of the court that I was beginning to wonder if I'd get through the book without having aliens land and tell us they were just there to serve man.

But then there's Poe. He plays his part unflinchingly. The Pale Blue Eye is fun for anyone who wants to be prompted to read a biography about Poe. I know I want to get one. The details Bayard supplies about him are crisp, humorous and fascinating. Was he ever a cadet at West Point? Did he dedicate his first book of poems to the Academy because he'd manipulated the cadets into buying a copy? Considering all that the book has given me to think about, I guess I'm glad I read it. But I'm even more glad that it's over.
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Product Details

A Novel
Bayard, Louis
by Louis Bayard
New york (state)
Mystery & Detective - General
Mystery & Detective - Historical
General Fiction
Edition Number:
Edition Description:
Publication Date:
May 23, 2006
Grade Level:
from 3 to 7
9 x 6 x 1.33 in 21.92 oz
Age Level:
from 8 to 12

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Related Subjects

Featured Titles » Literature
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Mystery » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Mystery » Historical

The Pale Blue Eye: A Novel Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$6.98 In Stock
Product details 432 pages HarperCollins Publishers - English 9780060733971 Reviews:
"Review" by , "[A]nother literary tour de force....At novel's end, the reader may want to start again from the beginning."
"Review" by , "[T]his period mystery moves methodically to the suspects, the motives, and the clues that twist and turn like the Hudson itself. The novel is further charmed by a skillful and lyrical writing style and the intrigue of West Point, now and then."
"Review" by , "Louis Bayard...turns from Charles Dickens to Edgar Allan Poe with debonair wit....[S]ucceed[s] by emulating the suspense structure of Poe's exquisitely lurid short stories and...adding the romanticism of Poe's lyric poetry. (Grade: B+)"
"Review" by , "Louis Bayard is a writer of remarkable gifts: for language, for imagination, for that mysterious admixture of audacity and craftsmanship that signals a major talent in the making."
"Review" by , "A first-rate thriller with language that sparkles on the page."
"Review" by , "Mr. Bayard has a gift for Poe mimicry and, as well, for constructing a labyrinthine plot. The story's climax is a parody of author Poe's nightmarish flourishes."
"Synopsis" by , From the critically acclaimed author of Mr. Timothy comes an ingenious tale of murder and revenge, featuring a retired New York City detective and a young cadet named Edgar Allan Poe.

At West Point Academy in 1830, the calm of an October evening is shattered by the discovery of a young cadet's body swinging from a rope just off the parade grounds. An apparent suicide is not unheard of in a harsh regimen like West Point's, but the next morning, an even greater horror comes to light. Someone has stolen into the room where the body lay and removed the heart.

At a loss for answers and desperate to avoid any negative publicity, the Academy calls on the services of a local civilian, Augustus Landor, a former police detective who acquired some renown during his years in New York City before retiring to the Hudson Highlands for his health. Now a widower, and restless in his seclusion, Landor agrees to take on the case. As he questions the dead man's acquaintances, he finds an eager assistant in a moody, intriguing young cadet with a penchant for drink, two volumes of poetry to his name, and a murky past that changes from telling to telling. The cadet's name? Edgar Allan Poe.

Impressed with Poe's astute powers of observation, Landor is convinced that the poet may prove useful—if he can stay sober long enough to put his keen reasoning skills to the task. Working in close contact, the two men—separated by years but alike in intelligence—develop a surprisingly deep rapport as their investigation takes them into a hidden world of secret societies, ritual sacrifices, and more bodies. Soon, however, the macabre murders and Landor's own buried secrets threaten to tear the two men and their newly formed friendship apart.

A rich tapestry of fine prose and intricately detailed characters, The Pale Blue Eye transports readers into a labyrinth of the unknown that will leave them guessing until the very end.

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