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Who would kill for a newly discovered play by Shakespeare?

By Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, April 1, 2007

THE BOOK OF AIR AND SHADOWS

By Michael Gruber

Morrow. 466 pp. $24.95

Contrary to what you may have heard, the life of a book reviewer is not unending adventure. It's lots of speed-reading and sitting around in your bathrobe, trying to finish the next review while scouring the cupboard for more chocolate chips and wondering if that mole on your shoulder is looking weirder. Oh sure, "There is no frigate like a book/ To take us lands away," but give me a frigate break; sometimes you wouldn't mind a few thrills.

Which may be why I'm such a sucker for this relatively new genre of books that are literally literary thrillers -- stories in which some pudgy book guy is propelled into a vortex of romance, crime and intrigue. If you love books -- their physical presence, the craft of making them, the art of collecting them -- then you already may well have enjoyed Ross King's Ex Libris, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind and a dozen others. Now make room on the shelf for a new guilty pleasure from Michael Gruber called The Book of Air and Shadows. It's smart enough to let you think you're still superior to that cousin who raves about The Da Vinci Code, but it's packed with enough excitement to keep your inner bibliophile as happy as a folio in vellum.

Gruber's story revolves around the search for the most sought-after document in the world: a new play by William Shakespeare. In his own handwriting. To get an idea of how precious such a treasure would be, consider that for 400 years the entire Shakespeare industry has managed to find only six tiny samples of the playwright's handwriting: signatures (all misspelled) on a few legal documents. What would a Shakespeare scholar do to find an entire play in the Bard's hand? Whom would a criminal mastermind kill to steal it?

Enter The Book of Air and Shadows, stage right. The story begins with a fire at a rare bookshop on Madison Avenue. The next day, while trying to salvage some of the merchandise, Carolyn Rolly (gorgeous, mysterious) and Albert Crosetti (lives with mom) discover some pages hidden in the binding of an old book. After struggling for hours with the difficult handwriting and archaic spelling, Crosetti determines that he's reading a letter written by a 17th-century soldier on his deathbed.

Excerpts of this letter appear throughout the novel in alternating chapters, and it's not easy going: "Now my father seeyng this taxed us sayyng what shal you not only be idle thyselfe but also tayke my clerke into idlenesse with thee?" You'll be tempted to skip these rough patches, but don't. First of all, they get easier as you get used to them, and second, they're a chance to experience the mingled tedium and thrill of discovery. The letter describes a spectacularly exciting life, which culminated in an assignment to spy on a popular playwright and suspected Roman Catholic, Shakespeare.

Meanwhile, another thread of the novel takes up the story of Jake Mishkin, an intellectual-property lawyer who's holed up in a cabin in the Adirondacks. While waiting for some Russian gangsters who will surely kill him, he's typing out the story of how he got in this mess. "Although there is a kind of lawyer who can reasonably expect a certain level of physical danger as part of the employment picture," he writes in his witty, rambling narrative, "I am not that kind of lawyer." Once an Olympic weightlifter, he's long since settled down to shuffling paper, cheating on his wife and leading a generally dull and morally vacuous life. But several months earlier, a frightened English professor came to his office. He wanted advice about how to secure the rights to a 17th-century letter that may point to the location of an unknown manuscript by Shakespeare. Jake promised to advise him and took possession of the letter, but soon after that meeting, the professor was found tortured to death, and Jake found his exquisitely ordered and pampered existence thrown into deadly disarray.

What follows is a wild story of double-crossings, forgeries, kidnappings and murders that's engrossing even when it's ridiculous. (At one point, the code secret is tattooed on a beautiful woman's thigh -- so handy.) We've got Russian mobsters, Jewish gangsters, Nazi thieves, international models and currency traders, oh my. And all of this madcap adventure in the present is mirrored in a story we gradually decipher from that 17th-century letter, describing a nefarious plot by radical Puritans to entrap "the secret papist Shaxpure." While twisting the plot into great knots of complexity, Gruber mixes in fascinating details about rare manuscripts, intellectual property, and ancient and modern cryptography.

Sadly, the women in this novel don't come off much better than they do in the average James Bond movie, but Jake is a truly engaging narrator, who's forced by this crisis to face up to a lifetime of moral weakness. And young Crosetti, who works in the rare bookstore only to put himself through film school, constantly reminds us -- even in the most dire circumstances -- that movies determine "our sense of how to behave. . . . Movies shape everyone's reality." That's a pop echo of Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), which argued that the Bard's plays literally created modern consciousness, assembling a vast index of human personalities and experiences in which we continue to find ourselves. Gruber never reaches for Bloom's gravitas (thank God), but, as Bottom would say, it's "a very good piece of work, I assure you." ·

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

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