In The Pale Blue Eye, Bayard presents a tale of grotesque murder and intrigue set in America’s West Point military academy in the 19th century, doing so with such conviction, with such a knack for the writing of the period, that I had to conduct some research part-way through in order to reassure myself that he is indeed a contemporary writer.
In the course of that research, I discovered that Bayard is a fan of Edgar Allan Poe. I must here confess to being something less than a fan myself. In Poe’s work I see too much of the reporter, not enough of the analyst. His psychological depth seems to end with his themes and is not reflected in the characters themselves, (at least in my recollection of reading him some decades past). I mention this given I feel Bayard the superior writer in this regard. Bayard has a knack, something I found with Sartre, (at least in my recollection of reading him some decades past), for taking people and presenting them in an unexpected light, using parallels that seem unprecedented until you think about them and realise how true to life they are. Insofar as he has that knack with people, Bayard has it still more with situations and environment. I found myself blinking at some of his descriptive work before realising he was spot-on.
However, it is in the very strength of Bayard’s writing that The Pale Blue Eye finds some measure of weakness. I would very much enjoy reading Bayard shed new light on ordinary people in ordinary situations, but the grotesque theme of this novel puts him in the position of someone with a finely-tuned ear for harmony describing a thunderclap. There is only so much subtlety that can be applied to madness, to a heart carved from a murdered corpse, to the ritualistic activities of the deluded. In travelling between such pivotal scenes, Bayard shines at his brightest. When he arrives he deals with events competently enough, but the brilliance is lost somewhat to blare of monstrosity. That said, the journeys between the scenes are long and meandering, the scenery wondrous, and the ending – not when you think it’s all over, but just after – unexpected and satisfying. This homage to the grotesquery of Poe can hardly be deemed gratuitous as a consequence but still, I was left with a mild sense of regret mingling with the satisfaction that Bayard failed to exercise such a unique skill on a more commonplace theme.
Still worse, unfortunately, is Bayard’s inclusion of none other than Mr. Edgar Allan Poe himself as a central character. As a young cadet, an aide to our detective, Mr. Poe is well-rounded, (if occasionally annoying), but his seeming digressions give too much of a clue to the end of the piece – the false end, that is, not the very end which still comes as a complete surprise – and again and again I was left wondering. Would Edgar Allan Poe really have risked life and limb in a pointless climbing exercise to gain entrance to a building when he may more easily have used the front door? Would Edgar Allan Poe have risked the opprobrium of his social superiors by entering a dinner party in disguise as someone still more superior? Indeed, would the man have been as much of a fantasist as he appears to be in this novel? The answer to all these questions may be ‘Yes’, but I don’t care to be told. The point is, I was asking the questions. I prefer my fictional characters to be fictional, not fictionalised. Such questions pluck heavily upon the delicate strand by which disbelief is suspended and, at times for me in the course of this novel, broke it altogether.
This is, deservedly, a four-star book and it comes recommended, if not highly-recommended. Unfortunately, I feel it to be a four-star book by a five-star writer. If Poe lacked sufficient subtlety for such themes, I feel Bayard has rather too much.