Thanks for your patience whilst I was away on what seems like a world tour but was in fact only a short European Tour with visits to bits of the UK thrown in for good measure but taking up pretty much all of October! Time to get back to where we left off though with a bit of a surprise for those of you who thought that the worst thing that could happen in a library was someone loudly ordering a pizza on their phone or getting trampled in the rush for the last Jackie Collins novel. It seems that there are libraries that attract the unlikely involvement of the CIA, shadowy cabals and ruthless assassins, or at least there are in the world of libraries in fiction.
Personally I blame Harrison Ford or at least Indiana Jones, or perhaps, Michael Douglas and Katherine Turner and Jewel of the Nile or maybe even Cubby Broccoli for the phenomenon that is James Bond. Anyway several of the thrillers I have read involving libraries seem to have been written with more than one eye on the potential for flogging the story off to Hollywood. So they have also sorts of fake jeopardy with unlikely escapes spread liberally around the world’s great tourist hotspots all of which seems more important than a really convincing story line or character development and you begin to suspect that the use of an ancient lost library is nothing more than a thin veneer of classical respectability to disguise the threadbare plot.
Let’s start for example with the novel I mentioned in an earlier post and which I discovered in the unlikely setting of the pleasant lounge of a lovely little hotel in Cambrils in Spain whilst half-heartedly browsing the dog eared copies of Tom Clancy, Maeve Binchy and Jeffrey Archer together with a several random German novels left by thoughtful previous holidaymakers. Glenn Cooper’s Library of the Dead is an entertaining enough fantasy but I should have paid attention to one of the iron laws of choosing books to read; the more egregious the hyperbole on the dust jacket the more sceptical you should be about the actual product. The Library of the Dead couldn’t possibly live up to the lurid cover strap line, “The most shocking secret in the history of mankind is about to be revealed”, and the secret which has been kept “in an underground library beneath an C8th monastery has now been unearthed – with deadly consequences. A select few defend the secret of the library with their lives”. Well it certainly sounded like it ought to have some mileage and the definite nod in the direction of The Name of the Rose didn’t do any harm so I gave it a go. But the expectation soon waned as you have to wade through more than 200 pages before you get a hint of where the Library might fit in and until page 250 or thereabouts before one actually materialises. In the meantime you get a thriller written as I said with more than half an eye on the screenplay (the author also writes successful screenplays) including several of the elements from a flat pack thriller kit.
Before we get to the ancient library plotline there is the small matter of the case of the present day Doomsday serial killer who is being tracked by a couple of inevitably mismatched federal agent protagonists. And in between the washed up agent and beautiful women on the track of another New York psycho stuff there is also the bit about Winston Churchill on behalf of the British government calling US President Truman about what they have just discovered on the Isle of Wight and that is bigger than the atom bomb. What they have discovered it seems is the Library of the title. Now that has got to be some library to involve Churchill and Truman. Most library problem are usually resolved by the Chief Librarian or at the very least by an Employment Tribunal. If it involves Churchill and Truman it is one very serious problem and probably a whole lot more serious than the world’s most overdue library book or another complaint about not enough copies of The Gruffalo. In fact it is a secret so big that we are told that the Roswell Project, at the time the biggest UFO conspiracy story of all time, was nothing more than a front to protect the world from the real and much more dangerous and threatening secret about a library. So it is a library whose secret is even bigger than creatures from outer space landing in the US! Blimey, it certainly isn’t any Library in which I have ever worked but unfortunately my interest was already waning with the implausibility of it all.
The library thread begins, albeit about a third of the way into the books and after several dead bodies and the compulsory exposition of all of the protagonists, on 7th July in the year 777 on the Isle of Wight when a simple man who already has nine children including six sons is compelled to get his leg over again after a hard day in the Dark Ages. The resulting son is the 7th son, and as dad is also a seventh son and anyone knows that a 7th son of a 7th son born on 7/7/777 has got to be well to the dark side of Freddy Krueger and because he can’t read or write and can’t even speak he is carted off to the local monastery. Then mysteriously after a few months and for no obvious reason he starts to write. He writes dates and names and whether that date is a birth or a death and he writes them rather like a ticker tape machine without interruption and without stopping and so it goes on and on book after book, year after year, name after name, date after date, death after birth and it seems he is recording not just everyone who has lived but everyone who ever will live in the future as well. The monks decide this must be some kind of divine vocation that must be protected and preserved and so begins the Library of a sort.
One of several flaws in the plot is that any monks faced with this sort of diabolical nonsense in 777 would have had the offending lad burned at the stake before the end of the week and with a dose of hanging, drawing and quartering thrown in for good measure just so any other passing 7th sons of 7th sons got the message but then it would be a very short novel wouldn’t it. Anyway to cut a long story short for the next several hundred years this carries on with side orders of sacrificial virgins used to produce offspring for the gifted/tortured/damned scribes and secret library extensions to house all this data until it becomes “one of the 10 largest libraries in Britain” with over 700, 000 volumes and all of them about as interesting as a book of circuit diagrams until….Cue fade out and cut to C20th.
Until the “Library” is discovered by a team of archaeologists in the 1950’s who make the mistake of telling the British government who in turn obviously to win Brownie points tell the Yanks. The American adopt their well-known subtle and sensitive approach to joint research, the preservation of onsite contextualisation, and protection of the physical artefacts by carting the entire collection off to the Nevada desert to a secret location and start analysing the data. They realise that because the Library predicts births and deaths into the future they can spot things like wars, plague and natural disasters and that knowledge can be used for what is euphemistically called “planning” by those nice boys in the CIA. When our villain, the inevitable former CIA agent turned rogue psychopath starts to use this information for personal gain, the Doomsday Killer, Churchill, Truman the Nevada Desert and an ancient library in the Isle of Wight all begins to make sense… sort of but by then I was definitely past caring. There is a sort of clever twist to the story and you can work out for yourselves what happens to our mismatched and antagonistic federal agents as the story develops so I won’t spoil it for you.
But you see what I mean about not believing the jacket hype. The library in the title is at the very least misleading which is why when I spotted a sequel from Glen Cooper about a medieval library holding a terrible secret hidden under the Nevada desert by the CIA (yes the very same one) I just pretended I hadn’t seen it and walked swiftly in the opposite direction. I was even more determined to avoid it as the book jacket went on to say that in the sequel shadowy villains want to get their hands on the secret library which is the other trope that always turns up in library based thrillers and I had already read enough of those but I will offer just one example for this week. The only elements from the flat pack thriller missing from the from the original Glen Cooper Library of the Dead were a shadowy cabal, and as far as I can see cabals always have to be shadowy or sinister or preferably both, and a plucky underdog protagonist pitted against the shadowy cabal. Gayle Lynd, AM Dean and Mikkel Bierkegaard more than make up for those omissions so we’ll have a look at A M Dean first.
Historical thriller writers seem convinced that the idea of an ancient lost library possessing powerful and world changing volumes is almost as compelling to readers as the lost Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail and as equally compelling to those shadowy cabals. The CIA seem to get involved on a regular basis which always help sell it to Hollywood who seem to have a soft spot for dark suits and Raybans but despite their limitless resources, vast surveillance networks and lots of well-muscled blokes in dark glasses they always get beaten to it by our plucky underdogs, a plot line that reaches he highest form of hokum in A M Dean’s The Lost Library. In an effort to drum more than the usual willing suspension of disbelief we are asked to believe that despite the strong historical evidence to the contrary the Great Library of Alexandria was not destroyed by a fire that may or may not have been caused by Julius Cesear but had “simply vanished” but then something as inconvenient as a catastrophic fire would almost completely would put the mockers on a novel all about finding the Lost Library of Alexandria wouldn’t it. And just to add extra confusion we have not one but two shadowy cabals one of which believe it or not is a shadowy cabal of librarians who are of course the good guys who seem to have preserved the secret of the Library of Alexandria from their rivals. Mind you they have also been using the power of the information in the Library to influence world events bringing down Nero and Napoleon apparently and that’s just the victims under N; so librarians with a God complex then. Their rivals the sinister but enormously powerful Council appear to have not only members at the highest positions in many world governments and an international army of ruthlessly efficient hit men but also enough computing power to make Google look like a Spectrum ZX. This limitless power turned to dubious uses put me in mind of the real life Bilderberg Group or perhaps I mean FIFA. Despite this they have been thwarted for centuries by those plucky librarians whose technology seems to comprise wrapping books in brown paper parcels and posting them into letter boxes around the world, a sort of bibliographic Womble. And if you think that is daft then wait until you meet our plucky heroine.
Emily Wess is a young scholar of ancient civilisations just completed her PhD and about to embark on her teaching and research career until she gets a letter from her academic mentor telling her he knows where the Lost Library of Alexandria is because he is the Chief Librarian and that Emily must now find it but he can’t help much as he’s just been assassinated 10 pages earlier. So faced with a murdered friend and a letter which encouragingly includes passing reference to ruthless assassins who will be out to get her, a fiance also on the run from those same assasins she does just what you or I would do; she abandons her fiancé and her job and sets off to find the Lost Library following a set of clues that are supposed to be undecipherable to anyone with a lower IQ than a young PhD expert on the Library of Alexandria but which in fact can be followed by any reasonably bright 10 year old. Fortunately as well as her PhD and an instant recall of how Indiana Jones escaped all those perils she also knows how to pick the locks of handcuffs using a bent safety pin whilst still half concussed, a skill no doubt learned as part of her Girl Guide badge for Basic Housebreaking. This comes in particularly handy just before the ruthless killers are about to ruthlessly kill her. Her quest takes Emily to Oxford – cue shot of The Radcliffe Camera, Istanbul – cue shot of the Blue Mosque and Topkapi, and Alexandria – cue sone pyramids and a bit of desert; just like those Bond films or maybe The Saint, remember him. Of course our plucky PhD triumphs over insurmountable odds finds the Lost Library which is now of course digitised and thwarts the bad shadowy cabal at the same time as seriously pissing off the librarians’ shadowy cabal by uploading all these dangerous secrets documents that they have been guarded for centuries on to the internet just like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden thereby destroying their power because now any other sinister shadowy cabal or random psychopaths seeking world domination can get access to it as well.
As I said I think that is enough hokum for one week. Next week another mismatched pair of espionage novices thrust into battle against a powerful shadowy cabal in The Library of Gold, and the even more risible story of the Library of Shadows featuring stories that don’t just make your ears burn but can actually set places on fire and which barely features a library at all, manages without the interference of the CIA but does at least have two shadowy cabals .
*Ian Sansom, The Mobile Library: Mr Dixon Disappears [about which more in a later post]