In 2006, Esquire magazine declared the first line of Louis Bayard's The Pale Blue Eye to be among the best of the year: "In two or three hours… well, it's hard to tell…in three hours, surely, or at the very outside, four hours…within four hours, let us say, I'll be dead." I liked this opening as well; once I finished this complex historical mystery, I went back and relistened to the first disc because I wanted reminding how the author had set up his story ... now that I knew its ending.
It's 1830. Gus Landor has retired from the New York City constabulary for his health and is living in the highlands above the Hudson River close by the not-quite-30-years-old United States Military Academy at West Point. The superintendent of the Academy calls on Landor to help him solve a horrifying mystery: Who removed the heart of a young cadet who had just committed suicide? His body was spirited away from the hospital where it lay following its discovery hanging from a tree, and then returned ... sans heart. Landor, with plenty of time on his hands, agrees to investigate the crime. Shortly afterward, he meets another cadet with a peripheral connection to the deceased and hires him to be his inside-the-Academy contact. That cadet's name is Edgar Allen Poe.
Landor and Poe quickly determine that the dead cadet had not committed suicide, but was murdered. They embark on a lengthy investigation that involves late-night meetings, secret messages left under a rock, dinner parties with underlying tensions, attempted murder by bomb and by sabre, and lots and lots of drinking. Landor and Poe develop an oddly close friendship -- the gruff, straightforward constable is the perfect foil for the melodramatic and flowery Poe, who claims that the poetry he has written to date has been dictated by his dead mother. The pale blue eye of the title occurs in his well-known short story The Tell-tale Heart (a quote from which I have used in the title of this post).
I liked this a lot, but then I like both mysteries and historical fiction. I like the way the author creates a cracking good story -- with a twist at the end that surprised me -- and then seamlessly weaves in fictional details that conceivably could be an "origin" story for Poe: The missing heart at West Point becomes the Tell-tale Heart or the romantic poem Lenore may have been inspired by the sad and beautiful Lea Marquis, with whom Poe meets and falls in love. The characters are fascinating and the setting is vivid. I can smell the funk of Landor's favorite drinking establishment; I can feel the cold of the unseasonably early blizzard; I can see the blood of Poe ... wait! No spoilers!
A narrator new to me reads the novel, Charles Leggett, and he's very good. Most of the story is a narrative of the events related by Landor and Leggett creates his brusque, no-nonsense character with a deep, growly voice. There's an underlayer of unexplained grief in Landor that comes to the forefront at the very end of the novel in the most moving way possible. Leggett's narration left me breathless.
Contrast Landor with Poe. Leggett creates him as an aristocratic Southerner with a soft, almost whispery delivery. He reads Poe's elaborately descriptive letters to Landor with appropriate drama. Both characters recite Poe's poetry with confidence and emotion.
The novel's other characters all pale in comparison to its detectives, but Leggett does create individual voices for most of them and they all sound realistic. He pulls off a scene where Lea Marquis is giving a singing recital, but she's not able to reach those soprano notes very well. Lea's mother -- unstable and deluded -- does come off a little drag-queenish, but I give the narrator the benefit of the doubt with a difficult character. What I particularly appreciate about Leggett's narration is that if the author provided instruction on how someone's voice sounded, he makes every effort to produce that voice as directed. Bravo!
My appreciation of children's literature aside, I think I am at my reading zenith with a hefty historical novel with a mystery to be revealed (not necessarily a murder). And when something like that's being read to me, by a skilled and emotive narrator ... well, if only I had a cottage at the beach and no need to earn a living ... [sigh].
The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard
Narrated by Charles Leggett
BBC Audiobooks America, 2006. 15:29 (unabridged)