When I picked up Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind last Sunday at Abids, and when I wrote an account of that book haul in my previous post, it brought back memories of reading The Shadow of the Wind more than ten years ago. I had bought that book in April 2005. Shruti and I took turns to read the novel and we liked it a lot. Since then the novel has gone on to become a sort of cult classic of a sub-genre of crime and mystery fiction which weaves mystery with lost manuscripts, hidden libraries, secret book societies, controversial deaths of authors, antiquarian bookshops, period novels with historical/literary figures, and so on and so forth.
Remember Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose? Yeah, that is the kind of novel that would delight a reader who finds this sub-genre fascinating. A dose of Holmesian detection right at the beginning … even the names, Brother William of Baskerville and his student, Adso (Watson), act as a strong allusion to Holmes’ stories … the search for Aristotle’s second book on Poetics, on Comedy … the labyrinthine medieval library … the forbidden books in Finis Africae … the mysterious deaths of monks in a Benedictine monastery … the blind librarian Jorge from Burgos, an allusion to Jorge Luis Borges, who became blind in his later years and was also the librarian of Argentina’s National Library … and the burning library at the end … it is an utterly fascinating read …
Two years after The Shadow of the Wind, I read an article by Pradeep Sebastian in The Hindu ‘Sunday Literary Supplement’ titled ‘Of books inside books,’ which appeared in his regular column Endpaper (on 05 August 2007). He wrote about this kind of mystery novels and called them ‘bookish thrillers’ … “Books are the actual protagonists in these thrillers. Not books about books, but books inside books. In this genre, librarians, bookstore clerks, collectors, and even readers (you and I) come off looking brilliant and sexy!” The Shadow of the Wind, he says, galvanized and expanded the boundaries of the genre and brought the genre into prominence. I was pleased that I had read the novel. In that article Pradeep Sebastian talks about 6 novels that he considered coming under the ‘bookish thrillers’ genre – Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder, Matthew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale; Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadow, Louis Bayard’s The Pale Blue Eye, and Sheridan Hay’s The Secret of Lost Things.
My interest was aroused and I wanted to read all these 6 novels and searched bookshops in Hyderabad, but couldn’t find a single novel from this list. I was not comfortable with online shopping because I was terribly scared of using my debit card for online purchases, but I had to try. At that time Indiaplaza was a leading online bookstore in India. I visited the site and saw that they had four of these 6 books. The way I shopped online was a tedious affair as I look back now. I placed the order, then wrote out a cheque, sent it by courier, waited for the cheque to be ‘realised,’ and then the books would be dispatched and delivered. It took around 15 days for the whole process. The Interpretation of Murder, The Poe Shadow, The Thirteenth Tale; and The Book of Air and Shadow were delivered and I started reading them one by one. Each novel was different and offered differing thrills.
The Interpretation of Murder ties in Freud’s actual visit to New York 1909 to a fictional murder that tests his skills. Freud starts applying his theories to try and recover the memory of one of the survivors. But it is not as easy because there is a lot of interference. New York itself becomes a character, the dark places of the city resembling the dark recesses of the human mind that Freud attempts to access in order to solve the murder.
I remember picking up Mathew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow to read next. An ardent admirer of Poe, Quentin Clark, embarks on a crusade to find out the truth behind Poe’s death. In trying to uncover this mystery, Clark finds himself confronted with ‘international political agents, a female assassin, slave trade, and lost secrets of Poe’s final hours.’ For some reason, it turned out to be a tedious read for me and it took me three months to finish reading it and by that time, I had lost lots of links in between and somehow stumbled across the finishing line. I don’t know why it happened, maybe because I didn’t know much about Poe. Now, I feel I should revisit the book and read it again.