Louis Bayard, who adroitly pulled off the stunt of dramatizing Tiny Tim’s adult life in Mr. Timothy, turns from Charles Dickens to Edgar Allan Poe with debonair wit. The Pale Blue Eye explores Poe’s life when he was attending West Point in the 1830s. Fellow cadet Leroy Fry has been killed, his heart carved out of his corpse (no ”telltale heart” here). Bayard invents Gus Landor, a former New York City detective who has retired to a West Point neighborhood and helps in the investigation. Landor meets the cadet Poe, already a bristlingly brilliant, morose, eccentric fellow — ”nothing about him was quite right,” says Landor. Soon the duo is poring over clues in a young woman’s poems, which double as acrostics containing information. Landor’s narration maintains a convincing 19th-century tone, though the sleuth seems appealingly modern, keeping the quirky Poe on track.
In a coincidence that would raise the suspicions of Poe’s fictional detective Auguste Dupin, The Pale Blue Eye comes out at the same time as a second good novel about the writer, Matthew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow. Both books succeed by emulating the suspense structure of Poe’s exquisitely lurid short stories and — particularly in the case of The Pale Blue Eye — adding the romanticism of Poe’s lyric poetry.