The Raven At West Point

From what you assume is his deathbed, a retired detective recounts his last case. As he does so, visions swirl around him. Visions of loved ones, confidantes, crooks and more. He is determined to put on paper the events of the last few months of the year, 1830. Events that mark a most curious and compelling case. Made even more so by the involvement of one of history’s most macabre authors, Edgar Allen Poe.

That’s the setup for a thoroughly engrossing novel entitled The Pale Blue Eye. It’s the tale of Augustus Landor, former New York City constable, widowed, suffering from consumption, now living in a cottage near the Hudson River, and assuming that his career is over. Until a Lieutenant from West Point arrives at his door with a summons from the institution’s superintendent. Landor accompanies the officer back to the fortress a few miles from his home and a Gothic mystery begins.

It seems a tragedy has occurred. A young cadet has apparently hanged himself. Which, in itself, is a woeful, not to mention potentially embarrassing predicament for the citadel of soldiery. But unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it. There’s also the fact that extreme insult has been added to injury. Someone has seen fit to carve the heart from the cadaver.

Landor is pressed into service by the academy’s headmaster and his subordinate. His task is to find the fiend who would do such a thing, before word of the dastardly deed reaches the outside world. As you might expect in a story of this sort, the hanging and desecration is just the beginning. More cadets will soon find the feel of the noose, and the indignity of the knife.

But what you might not expect, and what takes this novel out of the realm of the ordinary, is the young cadet who Landor chooses to assist him in his investigations. He is none other than the once and future Edgar Allen Poe. It’s true that the man, whom many consider to be the world’s most illustrious mystery, horror, crime, science fiction writer, was in fact a cadet at West Point. And this fact is used to entertaining effect as The Pale Blue Eye’s author, Louis Bayard, unspools a fiction that could fit nicely into Poe’s own list of terror tales.

Yes, bodies begin to pile up. Hearts continue to disappear. Suspects begin to emerge. Like the post’s physician, a clinical yet secretive man. The head authoritarian, who appears to be wound tighter than an overworked watch. Various cadets, an epileptic spinster, her batty mother, a scullery maid who enjoys frequent dalliances, and perhaps, even Poe himself.

Bayard does a masterful job of bringing the character of young cadet Poe to the page. He emerges as awkward an outsider as he probably actually was. An aspiring free spirited poet who finds himself in the most regimented of environments. But is he also a murderer? Keep turning the pages to find out.

The author captures the speech and cadences of the period without making anything sound stilted or dated. You actually believe it’s autumn near the end of 1830, and you’re just as compelled by the crime fighting devices used then as any you might find on CSI today. Though to Bayard’s credit, there’s more literature than science that leads to this story’s conclusion. And in the best tradition, the ending is both surprising and ordained from the outset.

The Pale Blue Eye was published in 2006. It’s probably still around in paperback or hardcover in some bookstores or online. Seek it out. The 400 plus pages will keep you coming back for more. Like the best of The Fiction Fortune Hunter’s recommendations, it’s unforgettable.

24 Responses to “The Raven At West Point”

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