By Eva Jurczyk (2022)

December 2022

“Who doesn’t love a mystery involving rare books and bad librarians?” says Karen Joy Fowler’s blurb for this book’s jacket.

While most of us who read this blog are familiar with the lending library, there’s another type of library with a very different purpose and style of operation and management. Security is of great importance with a clear chain showing where every valuable item is at all times and its provenance. Some are too valuable and fragile to be handled and are shown only in display cases.

Rare books and special collections, like rare art works, require a lot of work and specialized treatment. They are also far more costly to acquire and need the knowledge of specialists in various fields. It’s no wonder the acquisition of these materials tends to draw donors with deep pockets and large egos. They also draw thieves, and the disappearance of any of these items is a major catastrophe with dire consequences, especially when the biggest donor demands a viewing of an item that cannot be found.

Liesl Weiss had been second-in-command at a large university Special Collections library for 40 years. She had hopes of one day heading the Department, but the current head and her boss, Christopher Wolfe, spent his life in that position. His reputation was spotless, and his value to the university and Special Collections was beyond measure.

Then one day Liesl learns that Wolfe has had a sudden stroke that renders him unconscious, unable to communicate. Liesl is called in from her sabbatical to act as department head in his stead. That involves presenting the newest acquisition—the Plantin Polyglot Bible—to a group of donors later that day…except the item is nowhere to be found.

A thorough check reveals that the item arrived and went through all the proper channels for a new acquisition, except that it had not yet been insured. With disaster looming, Liesl manages to find a way to appease the donors. A continuing search afterward still does not find any trace of the item. Absent any other explanation, the idea that one of the staff must be a thief becomes strong, and each one falls under suspicion…except for one.

The real story begins when the reader learns of each staff member’s background and life. There are a few airings of dirty laundry, even tragedies.

Perhaps the characterization that rings truest is that of the donors. I mentioned egos earlier, and part of Liesl’s job (or anyone’s in that position) is to massage those egos to keep their money flowing toward the Collection. Everyone understands the dynamic here, yet the game must be played with grace & deference. Everyone reading this loves books old and new, but surely asks herself: could I play that part…because it IS acting.

This story is a satisfying mystery, but at the same time a veritable tutorial on rare books, their collection, care, and acquisition. This reader was astonished to realize the incredible amount of knowledge and training involved in a career in this field. It would also be imperative to keep up with the latest works available at auctions and their sale price. A sharp mind and memory are essential for this field.

The author also raises other issues about working women in a minor but interesting way. Liesl aspired earlier in her life to move above her second-in-command status to a higher position. But as her life progressed and her personal life grew in importance, she became less driven for more power. There are probably a fair number of women who feel this way.

Another interesting point the author raised briefly is that women often become “invisible” at a certain age. Both before and after this period, they are visible. I don’t recall that she stated this clearly, but in my opinion, a factor would be their “usefulness” in whatever environment they inhabit. I won’t go further with my thoughts on this, but each reader can formulate her own opinion.

A third issue she raised is about the use of modern technology such as carbon dating in determining the authenticity of a work. Some experts in the field think it should be done if there’s no damage to the work. Others think they should just accept what was claimed, leave it at that. I’m sure this argument will continue.

My personal feeling about this book is that I really disliked the donor characters. The ego and money issues were more than I cared to know about. However, I found the information about the collection and care of valuable works quite interesting, worth reading about. I recommend this book to anyone who feels the same.

This book will be available at Grover Beach Community Library.

–Donna Rueff–