A couple more thrillers for you this week based on the rather curious assumption by some authors that ancient libraries whilst having no intrinsic value in themselves always hide sinister dark secrets that megalomaniacs, psychopaths and anyone else bent on world domination or obscene wealth will stop at nothing to protect or to control depending on the plot. But before I get onto that I ought to acknowledge that there is nothing big and nothing clever about poking fun at novels written in good faith by people far more talented and entertaining than I can ever expect to be. However I won’t let something like that stop me trying to finds some entertainment value in those books especially as I have taken the trouble to read many, although obviously not all, of them so you don’t have to…unless you find them intriguing of course.
This week a novel that really does feature the ancient Library of Alexandria and one where despite a half- hearted attempt to invoke the spirit of that famous library the link to that or any other library is at best tenuous. This is Mikkel Birkegaard’s The Library of Shadows. Birkegaard’s book doesn’t tick quite so many boxes of the “flat-pack library thriller kit” that I identified last time partly because it is really about a bookshop; easy to confuse with libraries for authors who have probably never used either after all they are both full of books. There is a small library inside the bookshop with books containing apparently hidden powers, never satisfactorily explained, but it’s a bit incidental and the story is really about the custodians of the Library. They are a shadowy cabal the members of which all have secret powers although as far as I can see without the fancy costumes and masks that they wear in superhero films, powers that have a secret link to the ancient Library at Alexandria obviously, despite the fact that this link too is never properly explained. The novel is less about books and libraries than about the power of stories which would be an interesting theme were it not taken in a wholly preposterous direction by the author producing a story that is less the willing suspension of disbelief more total immersion for the chronically credulous.
The opening is familiar and reasonable enough; a son long since left home comes home to bury his father only to discover that his father, whom he had always thought was an unassuming bookseller, was not only part of a shadowy cabal hiding a sinister and powerful secret but indeed the leader of the shadowy cabal. And of course as is the way in these thrillers his death it becomes clear may not be as innocent as it seems and so the son gets drawn into a strange and dangerous world and where the library/bookshop as well as his life of course and are threatened. The upside of this tricky new life is that in the spirit of the flat-pack thriller he does get the chance to sleep with a beautiful woman.
The shadowy cabal and the powerful secret hidden by his father is that the members have the ability through stories or narratives of any kind really, to influence people’s behaviour to do as the speaker or his followers want, or to believe things that they otherwise would not. Think of it as say David Cameron announcing he is launching a campaign against poverty and despite the exponential growth in food banks we all believe him. These storytellers are the transmitters as they are known within in the cabal. Also members of the cabal are the listeners and they not only have the disturbing power to hear everything that everyone is saying all of the time, think of them as GCHQ, but also to conjure up images from the stories that people are reading and if they are very good actually read their mind; think of it as acute tinnitus with added pictures. Most scary of all though, the listeners can influence people through this listening just as much as the transmitters. Collectively these listeners and transmitters are known as Lectors and the closest you get to a link to Alexandria is a reference to how “back then it was considered prestigious to be a librarian. They were regarded as…people who had influence…a prime position for a Lector” I do hope all that is clear before we move on? If you read the book it is all helpfully explained with reference to some pseudo-linguistic psychobabble of no obvious provenance but it still sounds awfully like brainwashing. Jon our hero it transpires, completely unwittingly, is also the most powerful transmitter of them all capable of making objects move and generating dangerous discharges of energy that can set fire to things just by reading, a bit like those occasions when I read about the twaddle in the Daily Mail but a lot more deadly.
All this is fine though because this a the good shadowy cabal and they only use their ancient powers for good but leaving aside for a moment the enormous moral ambiguity of such a statement this would make for a really boring thriller so obviously we have the compulsory evil shadowy cabal who are the bad guys and who will stop at nothing to gain control over the bookshop, its library and all the good guys, especially Jon and with his power hope to achieve, yes you’ve guessed it world domination! It all gets a bit James Bond when the leader of the bad guys calmly explains, as only deluded psychopaths can, his plans to Jon who is now his prisoner in his secret lair in the new Library of Alexandria. His plan is to channel the power of the ancient Library of Alexandria through the new Library using the stories telling powers generated by our hero into his own body so he can become all powerful and then use the Library to transmit his awesome power all around the world. Something like that but by this time I wasn’t really paying much attention to be honest. I kept thinking that what our villain was missing most was a fluffy white cat to stroke. No of course he doesn’t get away with it but you can read all about that yourself if you are that interested.
The other novel we will feature this week is much more conventional but no less demanding on your credulity.
Gayle Lynd’s The Library of Gold (which for some reason has also been published as The Book of Spies) includes an extensive bibliography at the end and an exposition of the feasibility of the existence of the Library at the heart of the novel for which we will give her the benefit of the doubt by asuming it is all genuine. It is also the best plotted of the four ancient-lost-library thrillers that comprise this section of the blog. It even features not one but four librarians. Unfortunately in the first 20 pages there are three dead bodies two of them are librarians and the third librarian is in jail for killing one of the others who just happened to be her husband killed in a car crash when she was at the wheel. By that time, too, we know that the the ancient lost library of Ivan the Terrible, The Library of Gold is a whole lot more dangerous than your local branch library, or even some small war zones, and best avoided if you want to live a long and happy life. One of the dead librarians was the Librarian of the famed Library of Gold, assasinated in his own library and the third victim gets a bullet through the head just for mentioning the Library of Gold to a colleague on a park bench when he only went out for his lunch. Over the next few chapters we add in the CIA, a shadowy sinister cabal, a spy with a messy past, oh and the librarian who has done time gets released and forms an unlikely and mutually suspicious partnership with the spy. When they both end up trying to keep one step ahead of everyone with a gun you have ticked most standard potboiler boxes. But it does get better.
For a start the first thing that our jailbird librarian does when she is freed is spot her dead husband very much alive. When he realises he’s been spotted he avoids all those tricky explanations about how not only is he not dead but why he hasn’t been in touch either by trying to bump her off. A fate from which she is saved by the spy with the troubled past. And as all this is bound up with The Library of Gold off they go to track it down despite the awesome power of the cabal and their ruthless hit men and despite being as one of the hit men says, “one a rank amateur the other past his prime” but this is flat-pack-thriller land so who is your money on?
The resurrected husband it seems staged the car crash to escape his wife and become Librarian of the Library of Gold, the lair of the shadowy cabal and live happily ever after with his real love the Assistant Librarian but as we have already seen managing the Library of Gold is nearly as precarious a job as managing Aston Villa so its no surprise when he ends up dead 3 chapters later but then he was already supposed to be dead anyway.
I hope you are keeping up with all these librarians, two of whom are now dead and a third one is on the run from a ruthless assassin, but is being helped by a past-his-best CIA agent who was has just killed her librarian ex-husband who she thought was dead anyway. You need to because we haven’t mentioned yet the real point of the story which is a book, The Book of Spies, from the supposedly mythical Library Gold which has turned up in New York and after being stolen is now in the possession of the Assistant Librarian from the Library of Gold and who is also now on the run from the same ruthless assassin because the book will give away the secret location of the Library and at the same time expose the nasty little plot planned by Mr Big and Obscenely Wealthy at the Library to make a very large fortune by starting another war in Afghanistan.
So will Mr Big and Obscenely Wealthy get away with it and why is he having strange fantasies about young women; will The Book of Spies reveal the secret location of the Library of Gold; will our mismatched amateurs continue to stay one step ahead of our ruthless assassin; who is this other even more deadly assassin called The Carnivore and whose side is he on. You’ll have to read the book won’t you. Oh and I almost forgot do the librarian and the troubled spy fall for each other? Sorry I mistook you for someone who was the slightest bit interested.
There are plenty more novels still to come in our look at libraries and librarians in literature by an impressive list of names including Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and Lindsey Davis and of course we will not forget the best novel about libraries ever…The Name of the Rose, but before all that I am thinking of giving you a break from books with a blog on something a bit different next but we’ll see what happens when we get there.