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Literary mysteries and ancient treasure

4 July 2018

I’ve just read a couple of books in the literary mysteries genre. Neither of them was a particularly good example of the genre, but there were some things about them that piqued my curiosity. I picked them out more or less at random from the library, and yet found that they were surprisingly similar in plot.

The Library of ShadowsThe Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Over the years I’ve read several books that feature second-hand bookshops, or antiquarian or rare books. Most of them seem to have “shadow” in the title — The shadow of the wind, The Book of Air and Shadows and now The Library of Shadows. An exception is The Never-Ending Story. but in that the book shop does not play quite such an important role. Another was The mysterious flame of Queen Loana, which I discussed in another post, here, but that was about the bookseller rather than about the books he sold. So when I picked this one up in the library, I thought it might be a book in the same genre, but it wasn’t.

In this one a young lawyer Copenhagen inherits his father’s bookshop when he dies, and one of his clients urges him to sell it. He has lost touch with his father after the death of his mother some years before, and discovers that the bookshop in frequented by people who belong to a Bibliophile Society, which around the time of his mother’s death split into two factions — those whose reading aloud could influence people in a special way, who were called “transmitters”, and those who could influence the readers in a special way, called “receivers”. Each blamed the other for bad things that had happened to members of the society.

When I started reading it, something about the style bothered me. I wondered at first whether it might be the quality of the translation (it is translated from Danish). Could it be the translation that made the style seem somewhat pedestrian, and the descriptions seem trite? There were physical descriptions of the characters, but not much more. One of the things that put me off was the description of female characters by their hair colour (“the redhead”), which struck me as rather sexist, but then I thought it might be different in Danish culture.

I’ve just been reading another book that warns against what I’m doing here — comparing books with other books, and not treating them on their own merits, but this one seemed to invite such comparisons, as it kept reminding me of other books I had read. And the one it reminded me of most was The da Vinci code. I think it is better written, but definitely the same genre. so if you enjoyed reading The Da Vinci code, you might enjoy this book too.

The Chaos CodeThe Chaos Code by Justin Richards
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Matt Sribling goes to stay with his father for the school holidays, but his father is not home. Since his father is a rather eccentric archaeologist he is not surprised when he finds cryptic clues to his father’s whereabouts, and instructions to go to stay with his aunt Jane. but the house shows signs of having been broken into, so he is rather worried. His aunt is personal assistant to a wealthy researcher, Julius Venture, and his mysterious daughter Robin, who appears to be about Matt’s age and therefore likely to make the holiday more interesting, but his aunt warns him not to get too close to her.

Matt discovers that his father was on the track of some ancient manuscripts and artefacts that had been rescued, or pillaged from a library, and some historical research is needed to find where they are. They enlist the help of a billionaire, and travel from continent to continent in search of the missing treasure, one item of which, it is reputed, will unlock the wisdom of the ancients. At that point the story turns to pure fantasy, and becomes rather unconvincing.

One of the other reviewers of The Library of Shadows on Good Reads, Mark Zieg, makes some interesting remarks about the readers for whom it is intended. The author, he says, clearly intended it to be “the latest submission in the subgenre of supernatural literary thriller”, along with books like Elizabeth Kostovo’s The historian, and some of the others I have mentioned. He goes on to say:

The “whodunnit” aspect of the mystery, the morality play of motivations, as well as the supernatural element which sets the plot in motion, are all presented with such clumsy cliches that I found myself wondering if this was a book written for children. Indeed, with one or two snips of the editor’s scissors, this could make excellent juvenile fiction, an easy on-ramp to spark interest in better books featuring similar themes: dark and dank libraries filled with forgotten folios, musty old tomes of legend and lore whose cryptic secrets spell ecstasy or horror for the unwary reader..

And with that conclusion I must concur, and that is partly why I compare it with the second book, The Chaos Code, which, however, is classified as juvenile literature, and is likewise also perhaps to be classified as being in the same genre as The Da Vinci Code (my review here)., in that all three are about ancient conspiracies.

The main reason for blogging about The library of shadows and The Chaos Code together, however, is that in spite of the similarity of content, there is a great difference in style. Though both are probably more suitable for juvenile than adult readers, the one that was written with juvenile readers in mind is by far the better written of the two, And I’m trying to put my finger on the difference. Could it be that The Library of Shadows has just been badly translated from the Danish? Or are the stylistic weaknesses in the Danish original as well.

It’s hard to define the differences, but if any of my litcrit fundi friends are reading this, perhaps they could comment. In the first, from, The Library of Shadows, Jon Campelli, a lawyer, has just been to his father’s funeral, and been told that his father had left no will, so he was the sole heir of his antiquarian book shop.

They shook hands, then Jon crossed the street and went inside the Clean Glass pub.

It was no more than two in the afternoon but the air was thick with smoke and the regular customers had already taken their places. They gave him a brief glance but clearly decided he was of no interest and went back to their beers.

Jon ordered a draught beer and sat down at a heavy wooden table, marred by beer rings and lit by a hanging copper lamp attached somewhere above the hanging clouds of smoke. At a table opposite him sat a scrawny old man with pale skin, a crooked nose and wispy hair. The jacket he was wearing had patches on the sleeves, and the shirt underneath was wrinkled and far from clean. On the table in front of him stood a bottle of stout.

Jon offered the man a curt nod in greeting, but then he pulled out the Remer file from his briefcase so as not to invite further conversation. He sipped his beer as he studied the anonymous ring-binder.

In The Chaos Code Matt Stribling, 15, has just got off the train from boarding school and been met by his mother.

‘Thanks for meeting me.’ Usually she was working and he got a taxi.
‘Let’s just grab a cup of coffee while we’re here, Matthew,’ Mrs Stribling said.
From the fact that she said it, and the way she called him ‘Matthew’, Matt knew he wasn’t going home.
There was a Starbucks in the station and Matt had orange juice. His mouth was dry after the long journey from his school in Havenham. He was quiet, sulking — he’d been looking forward to spending the holidays at Mum’s flat in London. It didn’t look like that was going to happen now, and he could guess what the alternative was. He wanted to tell her that it was knowing he’d come home for the summer that made boarding school bearable.
Mum had a latte, and and Matt thought she’d probably only got that because she thought it wouldn’t be so hot and she could drink it quicker. Sure enough, as soon as they were seated: ‘I have to go in thirteen minutes,’ Mum told him.
That was typical of her. So precise. Matt liked to be precise too. He preferred his digital watch that told the exact right time to the second rather than one with a face and hands you had to look at and work out where everything was to tell the time.

So what is it that makes me think the second passage is much better than the first?

Why did I give the second one three stars on Good Reads, but the first one only two? Neither is a brilliant work of literature, and there are much better books in the sub-genre that I might recommend. Any ideas?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 July 2018 8:31 pm

    The second passage had less cliches in it and flowed better.

    • 5 July 2018 2:10 am

      Thanks for commenting. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought so!

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