Friday, March 06, 2009

The Book of Air and Shadows, by Michael Gruber

Somehow, I have fallen into what seems like a series of books about William Shakespeare. This is one that creates a treasure hunt for an unknown play, written in Shakespeare's own hand -- which would be nearly priceless, as well as creating new opportunities for scholarship. Academics, book sellers, gangsters and thugs are all after the prize.

Gruber gives the reader three different narratives. The first is a first person account by intellectual property lawyer Jake Mishkin, who is asked to provide information about the copyright status of a 17th century document that may point to the unknown play, as well as a record of spying on him. Of course, there is almost nothing known about William Shakespeare outside of his plays, so even a sample of his handwriting would be incredibly valuable. A record of his actions reported by spies would open new areas of scholarship. A handwritten play--a previously unknown work--would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The second narrative is told in the third person, following Albert Crosetti, a young man saving to go to film school, who does computer inventory for a used/rare book seller. It is Crosetti who discovers the 17th century documents under the bindings of a set of books damaged by fire. He has fallen into the spell of Carolyn Rolly, the shopkeeper's assistant and amateur book binder.

The final narrative is the text of the ancient documents, written by one Richard Bracegirdle. Injured in battle and dying, he writes the story of his life to his wife to pass on to their young son. In this letter he mentioned having been sent to spy on "William Shaxpure" to reveal him as a papist. The second document is also by Bracegirdle, and is an encrypted message. The final document appears to be a draft of a letter, with corrections and edits marked in pencil.

Mishkin is holed up in a remote cabin, listening for sounds that the Russians are coming to kill him, passing the time writing his own life story. He first encounters the Bracegirdle documents when a Professor Bulstrode comes to consult him about the copyright on the letter from Bracegirdle to his wife. Bulstrode ends up leaving the manuscript with Mishkin, who puts it in a safe deposit box. Soon thereafter, Bulstrode turns up tortured to death, and his heir and niece turns up interested in the document. She manages to trick Mishkin out of the documents, disappearing with the letter in an apparent kidnapping--until the real niece turns up.

Crosetti's story starts with a fire in the basement of the bookshop where he works. He manages to save most of the most precious books, but a multi-volume work gets damaged, and the owner decides to break the books and sell the plates and prints inside. Crosetti and Carolyn Rolly take the books to carolyn's loft, where she plans to repair and resell the books. As she takes the leather binding off the first volume, Crosetti notices that it has been padded with old papers with writing on them. He coaxes Carolyn to take out the padding from all the books, and these turn out to be the Bracegirdle documents. Crosetti thinks he can read the old fashioned handwriting, and thinks it might have something to do with Shakespeare. Carolyn convinces him to take the papers to a Shakespeare expert she knows--who turns out to be Professor Bulstrode, who scoffs at the claim to Shakespeare, and offers to buy the letter for much less then it is worth--$3500. Carolyn manipulates Crosetti into taking the offer, but he has cleverly withheld the other two documents and Bulstrode doesn't know about them.

So the documents have been split up, and somebody is after them--whoever it was that killed Bulstrode. Carolyn Rolly also goes missing. These two story threads run more or less in parallel, until about midway through when Mishkin finally meets Crosetti, and the Russians burst in to kill them. At that point, although Crosetti is willing to give up the documents, being a smart guy--it is decided that the only way to get the bad guys off their backs is to solve the encryption and find the alleged play.

Gruber does a pretty good job in giving these amateurs the expert help they need; although at the expense of developing believable backstories for them. In fact, they start to read like stereotypical Quirky Characters than real individuals. There is the Olympic Weightlifting Giant Intellectual Property Lawyer; his Rich Best Friend & Shakespeare Expert; the Former Juvenile Delinquent Jesuit Priest; the International Supermodel; and the Jewish Bookie Ex-Patriot. We are also given the Computer Genius, whose family is even further beyond belief: mom is a Reference Librarian who knows all the other reference librarians in the world, and also keeps obscure cryptology reference books in the house, first sister is a cop, second sister a lawyer, mom's new boyfriend a former KGB spy from Poland.

What follows is a convoluted mess of schemes, double crosses, double crossing double crossers, and a confusing list of players and plots. Crosetti mentions The Maltese Falcon and Chinatown several times, which is the level of complexity Gruber provides. In the end, two different sets of ruthless mobsters are after the play, and Our Gang has to out spend, out speed, out resource, and out muscle these international professionals. Which, of course, they do--and find the manuscript.

Everybody shows up at the remote lodge where Mishkin is hiding out, and yet another round of double-crosses is introduced. The manuscript is forged, says Mishkin, so are the Bracegirdle documents, which were planted so an innocent guy would find them and create the appearance of veracity. Mishkin then fingers his Best Friend & Shakespeare Expert as the brains behind the scam, and the mobster is convinced. So he grabs the play and throws it into the fire. And Best Friend dives in after it.

After his flames are put out, everyone is convinced that the documents are real. The mob is going to put everybody else into a boat and blow it up. However, our amateurs once again out think and out shoot the professionals, and in the end the Cop Sister rescues everybody because her brother called ahead. In an epilogue, Mishkin grows up a bit and tries to reconcile with his estranged wife; Crosetti and Carolyn are seeing each other; everybody's kids are out of jeopardy; Crosetti sells a screenplay based on the whole thing; and there is lots of litigation over the ownership of the copyright, so there's lots of work for the lawyer.

Clearly, this is not a exercise in profound pholosophical meditation, although it is not without redeeming value. A world in which people are passionate about Shakespeare isn't all bad, after all. Mishkin gets a complicated family background, and doesn't end up totally happy ever after. However, as Crosetti comments several times--the whole story is more like a movie than real life, complete with a last big twist. Several loose threads are never acknowledged, much less tied up: how did the Bracegirdle documents end up bound in books about a hundred years later? Where had they been? Why would anybody be named Bracegirdle?

There are some charming scenes in which Bracegirdle reports to his masters what Shakespeare does during his days, and what sort of man he is. Also, the report of the unknown Shakespeare play is clever: it is The Tragedy of Mary Queen of Scots, in which the lives of Mary and Elizabeth are mirrored as each woman recognizes that what she lacks the other has. Yet they must be enemies due to politics--even though each is the only person in the world who would understand the other.

There is yet another layer of double dealing and treachery in the Bracegirdledocuments. He is impressed into the job of spying because Shakespeare is suspected of being a secret Catholic. James I is looking to marry his older son to a Spanish princess, who would also be Catholic, thus endangering Protestant England, in addition to being Wrong about religion generally. The plan is to trick Shakespeare into writing a play about Mary, Queen of Scots (James' mother) that will show her as sympathetic and Queen Elizabeth as foul and evil. Shakespeare will be revealed as a Catholic, the theaters will have to be shut down, and James will have to abandon the Spanish Match. However, the plotters are found out, and Bracegirdle is left hanging, so he tells Shakespeare all about it, and together they conclude that the play is too dangerous to exist, so they work together to bury it, because they cannot bring themselves to burn it.

Of course, even had the plot not been discovered, the play was not at all what the conspirators were looking for: after all, it was written by Shakespeare. Both Mary and Elizabeth were shown as fully rounded women, each with virtues and faults, each of them made sympathetic and thus the play would have been useless as a piece of political blackmail. Shakespeare wasn't really known for writing agit-prop, after all. That's not why we still read him 400 years later.

This was a better than average thriller--less violence, more interesting subject of the hunt, and at least an attempt at giving Mishkin and Crosetti characters and backgrounds to explain their actions to the reader. Would I go out to buy another book by this author? Not especially. Would I pick one up from the library? Sure. Would I read it on an airplane? Just about perfect for that.

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