It is 1830, and the well-appointed halls West Point Military have been rocked by a bizarre and grisly murder. A young cadet by the name of a Leroy Fry is found hanged, his chest torn open, his heart savagely exorcised from his body. The current heads of the armed services are stymied
by the crime and appalled at the gruesomeness. The leads are scarce; the motivation remains a mystery. So, in frustration, they turn to Gus Lander, a retired New York City Detective "with a weak lung and poor circulation" to help solve the riddle of this terrible crime.
With each passing day, the responsibilities of the Academy are threatened. Having earned the distinction of permanence, it has acquired some estimable friends
- and some formidable detractors - and Leroy's murder has placed the reputation of the Academy at great risk. Lander knows time is of the essence, so he makes a request to the offers in charge that that someone be his eyes and ears, his agent within the cadet corps. Acting on a tip from a trainee, Lander decides on the young fourth-classman, the eccentric and rebellious Edgar Allen Poe.
In his short time at the Academy, Poe has become a minor celebrity but also a disciplinary problem. Marked down for missing evening parade, class parade and guard mounting, Poe betrays "a spirit of mild insolence." And although ''nothing about him was quite right,'' Lander is positive that Poe is the right person to help conduct in the investigation. Spy and spymaster, the poet and the constable are miraculously drawn together and then pitted against the Academy's stuffy air of bureaucracy. The clues pile up – a fragment of a larger note found in Fry's clenched fist; a poem claiming to be associated with Leroy's death; and the discovery of the cadet's diary containing crosshatched entries in microscopically tiny letters, written in Hebrew style.
As the plot thickens, anger, betrayal and superstition, even black magic permeate the halls of this prestigious Academy. More clues are unveiled; Poe is convinced the man who took Fry's heart was a poet – the heart is a symbol, and to remove the heart is to traffic in symbol. Lander is positive that the eccentric Marquis family holds the key, as they have no center, "no magnetic north, as it were."
Lander and Poe are thwarted at every turn and, in several instances, are placed in danger of their life. In a cunning sleight of hand, they are confronted with a world full of young men intent to keep secrets in a system that forces them to keep quiet and toe the Academy's official line.
Bayard beautifully presents the arrant and ungallant hysteria manifested in the Corps and
makes the real-life Poe his spectacular centerpiece. Utilizing sections of Poe's poems and prose, the author shapes a compelling and inexplicable tale full of longstanding family legends, childlike courtships, and traditions involving the ancient dark and sinister arts. By the time the story is over, Poe and Lander have been caught up in the deadly machinations of the Academy, and a family once thought to be respectable have finally been exposed. Nothing, however, will prepare the reader for the final conclusion, the crucial denouement, and the ultimate terrible truth that rocks Poe's
- and even Lander's - fragile world.