'Bibliomysteries' speaks volumes about love, lust for tomes
"Bibliomysteries: Stories of Crime in the World of Books and Bookstores" by Otto Penzler; Pegasus Books (544 pages, $26.95)
Because you're reading this review, odds are decent you already think books are beautiful, sexy things, maybe even objects of magical power.
You might not need much persuading to believe that people might kill for them.
Otto Penzler's entertaining new anthology "Bibliomysteries" puts a book or books — or a bookstore or library — at the heart of 15 engaging stories. Penzler, owner of New York's Mysterious Bookshop and founder of Mysterious Press, commissioned these tales from name-brand genre writers, including Laura Lippman, Jeffery Deaver and Ken Bruen.
Many have historical settings. Not surprisingly, culture-hating Nazis get their comeuppance in several stories. In "The Final Testament," Peter Blauner pits 82-year-old Sigmund Freud, dying of cancer in London, against a Nazi blackmailer who threatens harm to the psychologist's sisters. Surprisingly, their intellectual jousting includes detailed repartee about the book Freud would publish as "Moses and Monotheism" (1939). Ill and outraged, Freud takes down this slimeball with the only weapon he has: He analyzes him.
Reed Farrel Coleman sets a tone with the opening of "The Book of Ghosts": "Having survived three years in five concentration camps, Jacob Weisen knew death as one twin knows another." Weisen also hides an ugly secret connected to a prisoner's camp narrative called "The Book of Ghosts." Unfortunately, for a guy who wants to keep things quiet, he has become a famous Holocaust survivor, guaranteeing prying attention to what he does not want probed.
Before Gutenberg came along, the object of our affection, and often our obsession, was rolled up when we finished reading. Historical novelist Anne Perry unfurls "The Scroll," a spooky tale about the discovery of ancient vellum bearing faded writing in Aramaic. Powerful, intimidating entities begin pushing a beleaguered antiquarian bookseller to sell it to them at an exorbitant price, demanding he hand it over before something awful happens to him.
In a folksier (but still suitably fatal) vein, Loren D. Estleman takes us to a small New Mexico town where the chief of police enlists bookseller Avery Shanecross, a former detective, in his investigation of the mysterious death of a bookstore customer. A crucial element turns out to be a book written by the conqueror Cortez. This story's charm includes a scene with book club members bantering about "The World According to Garp," including the 99-year-old who hated it, complaining, "Six hundred pages about dancing bears and a boy biting a dog." (Hint: Don't buy your book reports from this character.)
This collection's longest story, John Connolly's "The Caxton Library & Book Depository," is a fable and a valentine to readers who have fallen in love with characters as though they were real people. Mousy Mr. Berger moves to a small English town after inheriting his mother's house there. He witnesses a woman in a dark dress about to throw herself under a train, but no one else seems to see this. Shades of "Anna Karenina," you say? Spotting the woman again leads to his discovery of the Caxton Library, and his initiation into a bibliophilic wonderland where characters come alive.
Readers in this age of fan fiction will appreciate that Berger isn't content simply with passively enjoying their existence. Naturally, comic mayhem ensues. Berger's predicament made me think of Woody Allen's classic story "The Kugelmass Episode," though Connolly's tale resolves more holistically.
As one line of thinking goes, mysteries represent attempts to restore order to a world shattered by disorderly acts. What could be more harmonious than having the right words in the right order on the right pages of a book?