The Book of Air and Shadows

The Book of Air and Shadows By (author) Michael GruberWilliam Shakespeare is undoubtedly one of the greatest writers the world has ever seen; a household name whose turns of phrase are so well known that many have slipped into everyday usage with us hardly even noticing. Yet for someone who produced such a magnificent body of work, had such a huge impact on the English language and whose image is recognised the world over, there is remarkably little evidence that he ever existed at all. A gravestone, a few references in legal documents and six signatures are the only remaining tangible evidence of his life – such small traces that there have even been questions asked about whether he wrote the plays and poems that bear his name at all (and plenty of theories abound about who might have written then if Will didn’t). Scholars in many countries dissect, interpret, reinterpret, argue and debate Shakespeare’s life and work, and there are huge numbers of books, journal articles, museums, conferences and websites devoted to the Bard. His work is still widely performed centuries after it was written, and the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre in London has been a huge success. In short, the Shakespeare industry seems bigger now than it ever was.

What, then, do you think a find of a genuine but previously unknown and unperformed Shakespeare manuscript would be worth?

Michael Gruber’s novel “The Book of Air and Shadows” estimate’s the value of such an object at $150 million, which would make it the most valuable portable object on Earth. The idea of such a thing being in existence also provides the perfect “what if” element for this novel. It gives us the highly valuable object that every self-respecting thriller needs, and with the inclusion of some tension, treasure-hunting, puzzles to solve, codes to crack, more tension, bad guys to escape from, much needed comic relief and the odd intercontinental chase scene, you’ll be starting to think that this book is somewhere between “The Da Vinci Code” and “National Treasure”. In a way you would be right, but this story is easily superior to either of these forerunners, offering plenty of interesting characters and enough erudition and wit to keep most readers happily entertained until the end (no mean feat given this book is a hefty 576 pages long).

“…after the first chapter I found I didn’t want to put the book down and was eager to keep going back and finding out what happens next.”

We start by meeting intellectual property lawyer Jake Mishkin, who is hiding out in an Adirondack lake cabin and narrating his back story as he anxiously waits for the arrival of the Russian gangsters who he believes are on their way to kill him. The lake house in question belongs to his long-time friend Mickey Haas, the Shakespeare expert at Columbia University who drew him into the story when he referred fellow literature professor Andrew Bulstrode to Jake to consult with him about a 17th century document he had recently bought. The document, while moderately valuable in scholarly terms in itself, also seems to suggest the existence of something altogether more exciting, the anxious professor explains. After depositing the document with Jake for safe keeping, Professor Bulstrode later disappeared and was subsequently found in a New York hotel after being tortured to death. It is understandable, then, that Jake feels a bit jittery about having the thing in his possession. The discovery of said document is revealed to us through the second strand of the book, told from the perspective of Al Crosetti.

Crosetti is a twenty-something employee at an antiquarian book store who is trying to save up to study film-making at college; tasked with the job of helping resident bookbinder Carolyn Rolly break a set of valuable books that have been fire damaged, he discovers some old papers that were used to pad out the covers of the works. After carefully rescuing the papers, they realise what they have found is an English Civil War era letter written by one Richard Bracegirdle to his wife from his death bed, and a series of ciphered texts. Unable to make sense of the ciphers, Crosetti instead attempts to read the letter – not an easy thing to do, but he thinks he spots a reference to a playwright named “Shakspure” buried away on one of the later pages. Carolyn is doubtful given the difficulty of reading Jacobean secretary hand, but suggests taking the papers to an expert she knows – a Professor Bulstrode at Columbia University. The third strand of the plot is the story from Bracegirdle’s point of view, as gradually told from his untangled papers.

I am aware that this may sound overly complicated and hard to follow, but Gruber has deftly interwoven the three strands of plot to produce a novel that holds together remarkably well for all the changes in perspective and time it has. Even when you get the traditional thriller-style crosses, double-crosses, surprises and shock revelations, the fast-paced plot remains clear and concisely written so you don’t lose track of who is doing what and why (which I often get in Hollywood thrillers, but I suspect that is more because I start to lose interest in many of them part-way through than anything else). It is a book that crams a lot in and manages to keep your attention and interest sustained throughout, and the narrative structure quickly becomes compelling: after the first chapter I found I didn’t want to put the book down and was eager to keep going back and finding out what happens next.

The characters in “The Book of Air and Shadows” are all complex, dimensional and felt realistic, and were brought to life by real-life deficiencies and interesting asides that make it hard not to feel something for each and every one of them. My favourite had to be Crosetti, who recognises early on that they seem to all be characters in a movie and uses his film-geek credentials to offer a witty and almost omniscient commentary on what is happening – and often succeeds in making progress through the plot simply because he does what would be done to solve the same problem in a movie. At one point, predicting what will happen with the expected arrival of the bad guys using the theory that life imitates art, he explains to Jake: “when the gangsters get here, they’ll act like gangsters in the movies, or, and here’s a subtlety that’s not often used, they’ll act the opposite of movie gangsters. That’s the great thing about The Sopranos – movie gangsters pretending to be real gangsters watching movie gangsters and changing their style to be more like the fake ones, but the fact is, it really happens. The one thing you can be sure of is they’re not going to be authentic. There’s no authentic left.” What is interesting about the characters, though, is that the book is not populated by Shakespeare fanatics as you perhaps might expect given the central premise of the story. Sure, there are two experts on the writer, but one dies early on and the other is little more than a background character. This leaves the characters in the same position that any one of us would be in if we found such a document, and that perhaps helps to make it ring more true and feel more interesting.

“It is a cracking mystery that works on several levels, and I even managed to learn a thing or two about Shakespeare in the process of reading it.”

The writing in the book was excellent and the amount of research done on Shakespeare and his time was impressive. Gruber even goes so far as to keep the original spellings of the words he uses in Bracegirdle’s letter, which makes it look and feel authentic, but slows the reader down as they struggle to follow period writing, something not easy to pick up even when you are dealing with typeface rather than handwriting. To give you an idea, here is an excerpt from the Bracegirdle letter: “Well Nan I am killed as you fortolde & I bid you have a care with youre foretellinges lest they take you up for a witch, for I am shot threw the tripes with a balle it is lodged in my spine or so saith the chiurgeon here…”. See what I mean? It undoubtedly adds colour to the book, but trying to get through 3 or 4 pages of that stuff as you are asked to do at some points in the book, and you start to feel a little frustrated. Granted, it makes you empathise more with Crosetti, but I soon found myself sighing every time I turned the page and found more of Bracegirdle’s writing to plough through.

The Book of Air and Shadows” is smart and is in no way a standard “cut and paste” thriller or mystery story. So many thrillers I have come across read like an outline for a good novel with all the meaty bits left out, but not so here; all the best bits are left in for you to get your teeth into, and Gruber isn’t afraid to cast a thoroughly unlikeable man as one of lead characters in Mishkin. It is a cracking mystery that works on several levels, and I even managed to learn a thing or two about Shakespeare in the process of reading it. It is a remarkably literary book for its genre and anyone who thinks that post Da Vinci Code thrillers are brainless should certainly be pointed in this book’s direction. However, for all its research and knowledge, this is a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously and it all too happy to poke fun at the genre it successfully inhabits. Gruber has delivered a novel that manages to hide universal truths amongst the treasure hunt, and I for one will be keeping an eye open for other works by him. And old books with suspiciously well-padded covers.

Highly recommended.



Book of Air and Shadows (The)
by Michael Gruber

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Written by collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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