I see a lot of galleys, but that doesn't mean I know a lot of books. Galleys are expensive to produce and expensive to mail so only a small percentage of new books have galleys made. Their unfinished quality is why my wife hates reading galleys. She's too good an editor to enjoy reading things that need corrections; it feels like work. Galleys come at me from a lot of places. Some are sent bulk, and come in the BookSense monthly white box, or in a publisher mailing. Some are sent specifically to me by someone at a publisher who knows what I read, or by some computer that has me on a list because of what I've read in the past. Some, the best, are handed me by a local publishers' rep, people I see regularly, and talk to about books. Of course, even then I may not pay attention.
More than one book has had to cross my desk twice before I've paid attention to it; one in particular comes to mind: Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard. Three people sent or gave me the galley before I cracked it open; it was only a phrase in a marketing note, "grimly exquisite", that caught my eye. I loved it, and I loved the author. I sat and watched him read at a sparsely attended event in Berkeley and thought, "Every author I know should be watching this reading." The next time a book by Bayard crossed my desk, I noticed.
The Pale Blue Eye is a mystery. A retired New York cop, wife dead and daughter gone, lives in the country. He's asked out of retirement, invited to a struggling academy to investigate a horrible murder; the school needs to keep the investigation quiet or risk closure. An aid from the student body is selected to help, to be an inside ear. Plots are discovered, secrets revealed and confidences betrayed. Sounds like standard stuff until the details are filled in; the school is West Point, the year is in the 1830's, and the student is a young cadet named Edgar Allen Poe.
I see few more risky things than using a historical person as a major character in a novel. We have already formed opinions, pictures and voices in our heads. One of the reasons I like Bayard is that he gives such a real, possible voice to the characters he writes, a voice that in this case speaks poetry. Long conversations, quiet in night rooms, give Poe a chance to speak volumes, all quite authentic to how I'd imagine hearing him speak. He's a good, believable character, one that I can reconcile with the writer I've read. Poe stays the cadet, never overwhelming the gravitas of the retired cop, but is compelling in his intensity and interest. I could see a case like this creating the writer of the books I've read since I started reading. We only know Poe from the works he left, but those works have shaped our collective culture. The Pale Blue Eye fits, makes sense, and keeps us reading.
The Pale Blue Eye is not all voice, and the voice it has is not all Poe. Our detective is more than he seems, and the tightly crafted plot had me surprised to the end, and satisfied. I'll be enjoying the echoes of this one for a while, and will be looking at the piles carefully for whatever Bayard does next.
Galley Slave Galley Watch:
Truck: A Love Story by Michael Perry
Probably my favorite memoirist, Perry recounts the simultaneous resurrection of his beat up old pickup and semi-beat up self. The same great narrative voice of his earlier Population 485 returns, and I can't wait to sell it. Due this month from William Morrow.