Thursday, August 21, 2008

Review - The Pale Blue Eye

The Pale Blue Eye: A Novel (P.S.) The Pale Blue Eye: A Novel by Louis Bayard

Let me preface this by saying that I'm not an avid reader of mystery novels in their pure "detective" form. I've read most of Sherlock Holmes. I've also read numerous "juvenile" mysteries over time (Hardy Boys and the like). I've also read numerous short stories including the "first" detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by E.A.Poe.

That said, I'm a big fan of a good mystery that really puzzles and gets you pondering. I've also always been a good fan of Poe and the themes and tones in his stories. So, on reading the "back of the book" blurb for "The Pale Blue Eye", I knew I had to read it.

Writing Style

The writing style in this book was phenomenal. Many will claim that it's too wordy and over the top, but I personally felt it was a fairly good homage to early 19th century literature and to the literature of Poe. The language used was well crafted and flowed wonderfully. Even at the moments when the pacing was slow and the text dragged a bit, there were intriguing turns of phrase that gave me a grin.

The flowery verbosity of Poe was humorous at times and felt a little too constructed at moments. This is, after all, an earlier version of the Poe with which we are all familiar and while it's true that much of his style may have remained unchanged, there were bits that left him seeming aged beyond his years. Granted, this was possibly intended since the many trials of Poe's life did create the pensive and morbid Poe responsible for the writings we have today...and who's to say that he wasn't already deeply entrenched in that persona during his time at West Point.


As I mentioned, the Poe character felt perhaps a bit too stylized and pat, but generally speaking I found him to be a very full and intriguing character. Distancing him from the historical Poe and just using him as a fictional character, he stands on his own. His main inconsistency seemed to be the struggle between the morbid, brooding Poe and the head-over-heels-in-love Poe. These character traits didn't reconcile well within him and left me a little disconcerted.

Although I do have some complaints about the Landor character, I'll to address later (hopefully without spoiling the ending too much). His character has had a troubled life as well and that angst carries over into his mannerisms and dialogue. I rather enjoyed Landor's character and had a lot of fun being inside his head for most of the novel. I would really enjoy seeing perhaps a spin off series outlining some of his New York cases (although that would put him pre-troubles, so he might not be as interesting)

Many of the other characters were less full but they weren't quite flat. The West Point faculty and cadets that we interact with were each imbued with their own personalities, though sometimes these overlapped more than I would have liked. I often found myself confused between Hitchcock and Thayer, for example. Doctor Marquis and his family were also well crafted but felt a little hollow behind the facade. Patsy was another intriguing character who I felt was actually better crafted than some of the other primary players despite her character being relatively minor.

Still, I was very impressed with the characterization work done in this novel and applaud Bayard his efforts in fleshing out a full cast of characters.


My wife Lynette is a more avid mystery reader than me, so I'm eager to get her perspective on this. But with my level of mystery reading and my enjoyment of 18th and 19th century literature left me thoroughly enjoying the story line and having a lot of fun with the way it played out.

The pacing was slowed down perhaps a little too often by overreaching internal monologue. The pace definitely picks up as you near the end of the much so that the last hundred pages raced by. The speed of the last section of the book was almost too fast when compared with the rest of the novel.

As with any mystery novel, I was playing along with the detective and trying to solve the crime before he did. Bayard appropriately threw out plenty of red herrings and extraneous details to muddle the waters, but he also kept the primary suspects in the forefront and made sure the reader was aware of them. While I had made the appropriate jumps and deduced the criminal before Landor explicitly acknowledged his theories (and was put in imminent danger in their vicinity), I felt a little obtuse for "figuring things out" only slightly before Landor revealed his findings.

And now for the potential SPOILER. I'll try to keep it spoiler free while also voicing my annoyance.

I really enjoy twists and turns in a novel, especially a mystery novel. It's great fun to be proven wrong. However, the degree with which this novel twisted was a little too extreme. Let's just say that in the climatic confrontation with the murderer, my eyes kept drifting to the page number and wondering why there were still 30-40 pages left in the book even though everything was about to wrap up.

I thought that perhaps the author would just become more verbose and would spend 30 pages rambling through the resolutions with minor characters.

I was very wrong. While there was a degree of "resolution" to be had, that wasn't the reason the novel was over. The novel continued so the author could raise the curtain on another aspect to the mystery that hadn't even been hinted throughout the novel. Our expert narrator Landor had obscured from the reader every possible key point that could have allowed a reader to guess at the "true" ending of the book.

I really enjoyed the conclusion and found the capstone to the story to be an intriguing and fun ending. What I didn't like was the feeling that I had been so painstakingly manipulated by the author & narrator. As one of my creative writing professors mentioned when talking about the mystery genre: "The reader wants to feel as smart or smarter than the detective. If the reader feels stupid or duped, s/he won't leave happy." I still left happy...but I left feeling a little cheated.


I would heartily recommend this book to any fan of a good mystery or of late romantic or gothic era literature from the 18th and 19th centuries. The descriptions and characterizations are exquisitely presented through wonderful use of language. The intrigue and details of the mystery are very entertaining and engrossing and make for an immersive read. My one caution would be to those of a more squeemish nature. The climactic confrontation scene is a bit gruesome. I physically shuddered at one of the descriptions. It wasn't much more gruesome than something from a prime time CSI or Law & Order show, but it was definitely a bit over the top considering the rest of the novel.

Still, if you're a fan of Poe, mysteries, or early American literature, I think you'll enjoy this dark mystery.


4 stars

View all my reviews.

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