On Shakespeare's Bloody Trail
Readers will appreciate that for his new novel The Book of Air and Shadows, marine biologist and former Carter speechwriter (?!) Michael Gruber chose a doozy of a McGuffin: the discovery of some 16th century papers that could just point to the existence of a completely unknown play by one William Shakespeare, the exclusive publishing rights to which would be worth many millions of dollars. Not a bad choice, as this device allows the author both a perfect gambit for indulging in both the imparting of some generalized Shakespeare scholarship as well as shootouts with Russian mobsters.
Like most of your better thrillers, Gruber’s churns along on the frisson of high-low cultural contrasts, often within the same person. He alternates viewpoints between two men who embody this internalized dichotomy. Jake Mishkin (narrating his chapters in a self-pityingly petulant, constantly digressive stream of consciousness) is a ludicrously wealthy intellectual property lawyer whose tony lifestyle can’t obscure his Brooklyn roots and family’s shady past. Jake has a classy Austrian ex-wife who left him for his rampant womanizing, his best friend is a Shakespeare scholar (helpful, that) of some renown and his brother is a smooth-talking and brilliant ex-soldier turned ghetto missionary Jesuit (a bundle of traits which also comes in handy); his life and relations are, in short, a stew of the sacred and profane, much like the book itself.
The alternating chapters are told from the viewpoint of Albert Crosetti, a pudgy guy from Queens who works in a rare book shop on the Upper East Side and still lives with his mom but dreams of being a filmmaker. He comes off initially as a lower-middle class schlub from the boroughs but it quite quickly becomes apparent that there’s more going on than initially meets the eye. For one, he’s no Tarantino wannabe, having amassed a vast wealth of cinematic scholarship—which Gruber allows him to unfurl in long film-centered conversations that have little to do with the plot but are immensely enjoyable nonetheless—and he’s also got some smarts in the family. Crosetti’s mom (“with whom he enjoyed a relationship minimally fraught with Freudian katzenjammer”) is a high-end research librarian with a “painstaking attention to detail, and an industrial-strength bullshit detector.” She turns out to be handy also after the chase starts.
There’s a fire at the store Crosetti works, which damages a number of books, including an insanely rare and valuable six-volume set of John Churchill’s Collection of Voyages and Travels. The mysterious Carolyn Rolly—whom the basement-working Crosetti knows as the beautiful goth girl upstairs whom the boss had an obvious thing for—involves him in a scheme to restore and resell the set without the boss’ knowledge, whereupon they discover in the Churchill’s bindings some mysterious old correspondence. The letters’ author is one Richard Bracegirdle, who (after much to-ing and fro-ing with deciphering of Jacobean secretarial shorthand and ciphers) writes about a late 16th century plot he was involved in to convince Shakespeare to write a previously unknown politically inflammatory play about Mary Queen of Scots. The fact that all this may lead to the play’s actual manuscript (of practically immeasurable value) is what brings everyone’s temperatures to a boil. A professor whom Rolly and Crosetti go to for advice is murdered. Rolly disappears. Mishkin gets involved after that same professor leaves the manuscript with him before his demise. Then mobsters get involved, and it soon becomes very helpful that Mishkin’s Palestinian driver, Omar, was once a bodyguard for Arafat.
It’s that kind of odd detail which gives The Book of Air and Shadows much more of a joyful kick than it really has any right to. The story is unlikely in the extreme, with all the major players having a suspiciously correct skill-set for the tasks which they are handed, but Gruber has such the right knack for delivering odd personal touches as well as unusually graceful arcs for each of his characters that he makes much of it something approaching believable.
This is a big and baggy kind of novel, at times not much more than an excuse for Gruber to indulge in some snappy, sexy dialogue and his strangely absorbing digressions on everything from Polish film history to contract law. But except for a short period near the halfway mark, the book never drags. And although the mechanics behind the plot are hard to believe, the manner in which it unfolds is powerfully real. Gruber has little truck with Dan Brown or Robert Ludlum-esque false heroics, pseudo-profundities and stock characters; he makes sure to include a measure of thriller elements, but when the big firefight finally comes, it’s delivered with such killer and off-kilter panache that Elmore Leonard would be envious.