When I read The DaVinci Code, I thought, “I think I would have enjoyed this more if it was about Shakespeare, instead of Catholicism.” When I read Interred With Their Bones, which had a bunch of Shakespearean actors killing each other to get at the prize, I thought, “Hmmm, maybe thrillers aren’t really my thing. Good Shakespeare content, though.”
I’m happy to report that The Book Of Air And Shadows, by Michael Gruber, fits somewhere between the two. I liked it quite a bit. Which is odd, really, since there isn’t really all that much Shakespeare in it. You probably know the plot without me even having to tell you. Somebody turns up clues to an undiscovered Shakespeare manuscript (and no, actually, it’s not Cardenio). You notice how it’s never the manuscript they find, but always some wild goose chase of clues that may or may not have a manuscript at the end? Same deal here.
Blah blah blah, typically backstory stuff about exactly what a new Shakespeare manuscript would mean to the world, guesses at its value, and so on, and then the race is on for who gets it first, the good guys or the bad guys. Seems innocent, then somebody dies suspiciously and we learn just how far the bad guys are willing to go…you know, the standard stuff.
The first interesting bit is that none of the characters are really all that into Shakespeare. Sure, there are a few token Shakespeare experts thrown in, but they are minor characters. The heroes are actually an amateur filmmaker and his bookbinder girlfriend that work in a rare bookstore, and an intellectual property lawyer. Throw in a liberal amount of gangsters, mostly Russian, and the rest of the story sort of writes itself. Is it legit? Is it all a big scam? Who is scamming whom? How many different groups of gangsters are in on it, and who is the spy in the ranks?
I find it amusing to comment on the book this way, since many times that is exactly what the amateur filmmaker hero does, commenting on how “If this was a movie, the gangsters would bust down that door…” and then they do. The narrative structure of the story is compelling. It starts with the lawyer hiding out from the bad guys, and takes the form of him journalling his story up to that point. This is intermixed with the story of the filmmaker who found the clues to the manuscript, which is told in third person. Eventually the stories cross and you get opportunities to hear two sides of the same scene whenever both men are in the room.
Some parts, I did not love. For instance we get to see the actual letters that are the clues to the hidden treasure. They are mixed between chapters. They are also written in “original spelling”, so you have to slog through pages of stuff like this (opening randomly): “…asking always the favour of almighty God to keep me stricktlie on the path of truthfullnesse as I have muche of the olde Adam in me as thou knowest & mayhap I have told you som of it before nowe, yet you may forget and, which God foirbid, die before oure lad hath reached the age of understand, soe it is better wrote down.” It’s one thing to get maybe a paragraph of that, but when you’ve got 3-5 pages of it in between each chapter, it takes some getting used to. I just keep seeing it as a long stream of typos.
Secondly, it ends as all thrillers seem to do with so many twists and doublecrosses that you may lose track of what just happened. I’m not really sure if writing a character who kept pointing out the cliche’d nature of the story helped or hurt the overall quality. Wouldn’t the idea be to do something different than the typical script calls for, instead of taking the story out to its standard conclusion, all the while going “Yup, this is what happens next, yup, then this….” There’s actually an answer to that question near the end, by the way, when some of the characters engage in conversation about whether movies echo humanity, or whether people define themselves around what the movies tell them is the ideal. Which of course leads back to asking the same question of Shakespeare’s works, a common theme here on the blog.
Lastly, I didn’t love the characters all that much. There is a weird obsession with sex in the story that seemed over the top at times. I get that it is a defining characteristic of our narrator – he ruins his life over his obsession with sex, as a matter of fact – it just seemed a little alien to me in a novel that I thought was going to be primarily about Shakespeare. Which reminds me, the narrator is a pretty lousy person. There’s a whole backstory about why, and you get to decide for yourself whether you forgive him his sins, but in general, he’s a big obnoxious bully. Which makes his parts of the story, told in first person, very interesting.
Summing up? This is, in no way, a cut and paste thriller where the prize is a lost Shakespeare manuscript. It could just as easily have been the Ark of the Covenant for all it mattered to the story (other than some token bits about intellectual property and copyright ownership, that is). It’s also not that much of a thriller. I’d almost put it more in the mystery category. There are very few action sequences, and almost all of them are dispatched in short order. I believe there was only one chase scene in the whole book, which yes, did have the filmmaker character commenting “Oh, and this would be the obligatory chase scene.” I mentioned elsewhere that there are no “dun dun DUNNNN!!!” moments at the end of chapters. Given those things I am actually quite surprised to find that I enjoyed the story very much. The narrative in particular worked very well. It felt more…literary? To me. It did not feel like the kind of random paperback you grab out of a rack at the airport. You know what I’m talking about, the throwaway kind that you wouldn’t otherwise think about if you didn’t need something to do for the next 6 hours. It was not a chore to read. On the contrary I was a little sad when it was over. Not in the sense that I missed the characters, but in that I was enjoying the writing itself. Does that make sense? I think I like this Gruber fellow’s style. Might have to look into what else he’s written, Shakespeare or no. I suppose that ends up as something of a compliment, since I never would have known who he was if he hadn’t written a Shakespeare book.