BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The patrons of an independent bookstore have been dropping dead, and it’s up to a bookish detective and a bookseller to find out why.
PROS: Told with a delightful sense of humor, this story appeals to the bibliophile in all of us. (I’m looking at you, John!)
CONS: The story is so short that sometimes it seems a little rushed, especially in the romance department.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s Umberto Eco for the rest of us.
We should all give PS Publishing a rousing vote of thanks for keeping the stories of Serbian writer Zoran Živković available for US audiences. Given that Mr. Živković is fluent in English and can assist with the translations, his books are some of the best foreign-language sf/f I’ve read so far. (Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers is also in this category. Everyone should read it!) This is especially important, since Živković’s books are filled with wry humor that a poor translation could easily ruin.
Although this short novel (less than 200 pages) is a murder mystery where it’s always raining, it isn’t at all dark and gloomy. I found myself laughing out loud, especially during the first half. The repartee establishing the nascent romance between the detective called in to solve the crimes and the co-owner of the bookstore in which they take place is particularly good. This exchange takes place right after the paramedics have removed the first victim:
“You have a nice bookstore. I would have preferred not to come on business.”
“I’m afraid we don’t have many books that would interest a police inspector. The books we sell are mostly serious literature.”
“Then you sell what interests this police inspector.”
“My degree is in literature.”
“And you went to work for the police?”
“I went to work where there was a job. Being well-versed in literature wasn’t a handicap. On the contrary, it’s often helped me.”
“Detective novels? But they aren’t really serious literature.”
“Would you call Crime and Punishment or The Name of the Rose light literature?”
“No, of course not. But I wouldn’t categorize them with detective stories either.”
“Nevertheless, they can be read like one.”
“I suppose so. Let’s not go into the complex issues of literature right now, it’s not the right time. I’ll be more than happy to exchange thoughts with you on such topics if you come another time. Unofficially.”
It’s nice to know that it’s not only the American literati that are so opinionated about what constitutes “serious literature.” The descriptions of the more eccentric bookstore patrons (or “patients”) also have an amusing air of truth.
Inevitably, The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s famous mystery about book-related deaths in a monastery in the 1300s, casts a long shadow over this story. Živković embraces the comparison, having several characters comment on it. It’s that metaphysical aspect to the book, where the characters are as aware of their literary tradition as we are, that makes it so delightful.
As the deaths continue, the plot thickens. The detective and the book seller become more and more entangled. Terrorism is suspected and the Serbian equivalent of Homeland Security is called in. There is a secret society running around, bringing to mind comparisons with another famous Umberto Eco novel, Foucault’s Pendulum. However, this plot remains luxuriously easy to follow, unlike that labyrinth of a novel (just the summary of its plot on Wikipedia runs to more than 1800 words).
Hints of the fantastic begin to surface as the detective starts having a feeling he labels “deja lu.” He feels as if everything he does, says, and experiences has already been determined for him. It’s as if he had read a book where all this already happened. I can’t say any more without spoiling the story, but rest assured that this is a fantasy, no matter how light the “slipstream” elements are in the beginning.
As can be seen from the snippet above, this story is told largely in dialog, without any over-blown or particularly complex prose. It is very fast and easy to read, perfect for a rainy afternoon in a tea shop, perhaps, which is where the two protagonists spend much of their time. For anyone who enjoys books about books, and also short witty books by excellent writers, this will be one you shouldn’t miss.