Two years ago, I quite enjoyed Louis Bayard's Mr. Timothy, so I was looking forward to his most recent novel, The Pale Blue Eye (2006). While Mr. Timothy is a sequel of sorts to A Christmas Carol, The Pale Blue Eye adopts a different (albeit familiar) strategy: its narrator, Augustus Landor, joins up with a youthful Edgar Allan Poe to investigate multiple murders--not to mention missing hearts--at a rather beleaguered West Point. "Landor" isn't an allusion to the poet--he owns a cottage. ("Augustus," however, is probably a nod in the direction of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and perhaps C. Auguste Dupin as well.) In the manner of Sherlock Holmes pastiche, the novel thus writes a promised but unwritten Poe story, rather than rewrites an extant text. Along the way, we read a poem that isn't "The Raven," stumble across some situations vaguely reminiscent of "The Tell-Tale Heart" (including, of course, the title, which here appears in the aforementioned non-"Raven"), and meet a suspiciously House-of-Usherish family. In other words, Bayard imagines the novel's events as fictional biographical precursors of Poe's own tales, grounding them in "reality" instead of the Gothic, Freudian psychology, or however else one might choose to interpret them.
Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for Mr. Timothy singularly failed to carry over to this newest venture. First and foremost was the question of style. As in Mr. Timothy, Bayard usually avoids writing cod nineteenth-century prose; Landor frequently addresses his "Reader," in a manner more akin to Jane Eyre than Poe's narrators, but that's about it. If only Bayard had shown similar restraint with Poe. Alas, the reader is subjected to considerable quantities of faux Poe--and very faux it is indeed. It's hard not to giggle when confronted with effusions like this: "Lea. Lea! What a ravishing residue does that name deposit within my ear's inner chamber! What a world of happiness is foretold within those two brief and euphonious syllables!" (209) Bayard's ersatz Poe primarily relies on multisyllabic words, vaguely stilted sentence structures, an occasional slide into alliteration, and literary allusions; there's little sign of the real Poe's rhythmic sense, his use of apposition and repetition, and the like. Since Bayard modernizes Landor's prose but not Poe's, the overall effect feels even more jarring, as if the two characters had accidentally stumbled into each other from different novels and decided to collaborate.
The plotting, however, is just as problematic. While I plead guilty to thinking sometimes uncomplimentary thoughts about historical mysteries, the "historical" element is not the difficulty here--it's the "mystery" bit. Since I'm about to reveal the ending, the rest of this essay will go below the fold.