An enjoyable biblio-mystery
A gang of thieves stage a daring heist from a secure vault deep below Princeton University’s Firestone Library. Their loot is priceless, but Princeton has insured it for twenty-five million dollars.
Bruce Cable owns a popular bookstore in the sleepy resort town of Santa Rosa on Camino Island in Florida. He makes his real money, though, as a prominent dealer in rare books. Very few people know that he occasionally dabbles in the black market of stolen books and manuscripts.
Mercer Mann is a young novelist with a severe case of writer’s block who has recently been laid off from her teaching position. She is approached by an elegant, mysterious woman working for an even more mysterious company. A generous offer of money convinces Mercer to go undercover and infiltrate Bruce Cable’s circle of literary friends, ideally getting close enough to him to learn his secrets.
But eventually Mercer learns far too much, and there’s trouble in paradise…
This is not your typical John Grisham thriller. For one thing, it’s mostly a novel about publishing, writing and bookselling with an overlying crime story to bring everything together. I very much enjoyed it.
The novel starts with a complex, perfectly-executed theft of Fitzgerald’s original manuscripts, from the Princeton University vaults. A huge PR disaster, not to mention expensive for the insurance company, the hunt for the thieves begins immediately. Unluckily for Princeton, the manuscripts disappear onto the black market, and are feared lost for good.
Our protagonist, Mercer Mann, is a struggling author. Recently laid offer from her associate teaching gig at a university, and years past her second publishing deadline, Mercer feels somewhat adrift. Approached by an insurance company’s investigative branch, she is offered a considerable sum in return for some light spy work on the titular island. Thanks to her familiarity with the community, not to mention her background as a struggling writer, she is a perfect plant. Her mission is to get close to Bruce Cable, the highly successful (possibly shady) proprietor of the local bookstore — one that has become a valuable hub for the island’s publishing community and a popular stop on authors’ book tours. Mercer is not Grisham’s strongest protagonist, and sometimes feels a bit too obvious-to-type, as if he pulled her from central casting. There wasn’t much about her that jumped out as unique.
The other characters in the novel are almost all far more interesting than Mercer. Certainly, Bruce Cable is an interesting character of questionable morals (not always questionable — there are certain things he’s very open and honest about). The other side characters — especially the eclectic collection of authors (successful and not) who populate the island’s literary scene — are interesting and varied. The thieves who perpetrate the heist don’t really get much space to grow as personalities — given their ultimate fates, I certainly finished thinking the crime aspect of the novel was under-developed.
This is not Grisham’s most gripping novel, and the theft of the manuscripts sometimes feels purely like a device which allows the author to talk about writing, publishing and the sketchier side of bookselling (although, not a whole lot on the latter). As someone who has worked in publishing and is, obviously, quite obsessed with books, I found the bulk of the novel interesting and relatable. I certainly think it can also be easily enjoyed by non-publishing people, but there is no doubt that those somewhat connected to publishing or writing may get just that little bit more out of reading this novel.
Grisham’s own love for writing and books comes through frequently, as do many of what I assume are his own rules for writing. Through Cable, who acts as a mentor and sounding board for many of the authors on Camino Island and those who come through his store for signings, we get some pretty good (if selective) writing advice. For example, something for writers to avoid:
“I just finished a novel by a guy who’s touring and will stop by next week. He always starts every book with the typical prologue, something dramatic like a killer stalking a woman or a dead body, then will leave the reader hanging, go to chapter 1, which, of course, has nothing to do with the prologue, then to chapter 2, which, of course, has nothing to do with either chapter 1 or the prologue, then after about thirty pages slam the reader back to the action in the prologue, which by then has been forgotten.”
Indeed, one piece of advice could have been taken directly out of my own mind (albeit better written):
“Another rookie mistake is to introduce twenty characters in the first chapter. Five’s enough and won’t confuse your reader. Next, if you feel the need to go to the thesaurus, look for a word with three syllables or fewer. I have a nice vocabulary and nothing ticks me off more than a writer showing off with big words I’ve never seen before. Next, please, please use quotation marks with dialogue; otherwise it’s bewildering. Rule Number Five: Most writers say too much, so always look for things to cut, like throwaway sentences and unnecessary scenes. I could go on.”
(This advice about word-selection, incidentally, is also highly applicable to anyone who wants to become a journalist, start a blog, or anything else in that vein.)
And, a final snippet, something that anyone who frequents an indie-bookstore may agree on, in this passage about booksellers:
“the one constant was that those giving advice enjoyed what they were doing. They loved books, and literature, and writers, the whole publishing scene, and they were willing to put in long hours and deal with customers because they considered theirs to be a noble calling.”
In summation: this is not Grisham’s best, most gripping novel. Not by quite some distance. However, it is nevertheless an interesting, engaging and pleasant read. If you are already a fan of his writing, I have no doubt that you’ll enjoy this as well.