Bayard’s second offering is another literary tour de force, this time featuring the young Edgar Allan Poe as a detective’s assistant.
Bayard has much fun with his prosy, impressionable Poe as he and former New York constable Gus Landor solve two grisly murders at West Point, circa 1830. Landor, having retired upstate for his health, is now informally recalled to service to investigate the death of Cadet Leroy Fry, found hung and with his heart surgically removed. Discretion is the word, and so needing a man inside, Landor enlists Cadet Poe to gather information, for it is certain that Fry was murdered and mutilated by a fellow cadet. Landor and Poe find evidence of Satanic sacrifice at the crime scene, and soon after, another cadet is found hung and heartless, and this time castrated, too. With classic savant-style deduction, Landor narrows the field of suspects to Artemus Marquis, a charismatic upperclassman whose father happens to be West Point’s resident surgeon. It is Poe’s mission to insinuate himself into the Marquis household, and in the process Poe falls gloomily in love with Artemus’ creepy sister Lea. Among his less pertinent observations of the Marquis family is the curiously ardent bond Lea and Artemus enjoy. Oh well, for the only relationship that really matters is the tender one between Landor and Poe, as they cozy up on bleak winter nights to get drunk and ponder the meaning of it all, until Landor discovers the sad lies that knit together Poe’s past. One imagines that much of Bayard’s enjoyment came from creating a set of events that would later influence all of Poe’s writing—working backward, inventing inspiration for his poems and tales. As Poe and Landor come closer to their end, predictability begins to lessen the grand finale of fire and ice, but that end is a red herring, and the revelation in the mystery’s dénouement is so shocking and smart that the entire tale is turned upside down.
At novel’s end, the reader may want to start again from the beginning.