The Bookman’s Tale, Charlie Lovett. New York: Viking, 2013.
Summary: Peter Byerly, a recently bereaved bookseller living in a small English village, comes across a hundred year old watercolor that is a striking image of his deceased wife, a find that sets him on a trail leading to what could be a major literary discovery, but also to danger and murder.
It seems of late that I have discovered that there is a whole genre of mysteries set around the book trade. Most, including this work, on not destined to be literary classics. What this book does is combine descriptions of the world of antiquarian bookselling and restoration, with a riveting crime mystery, and with a tragic love story thrown in.
Peter Byerly has recently lost is wife at a young age and moved to the village of Kingham, England, living in the cottage he and Amanda renovated just before her death. In an effort to resume his bookselling career he peruses the shelves of a local bookseller. Inside a volume on literary forgeries, he discovers a watercolor that must be a hundred years old that could have been a painting of his wife. The only indication of the painter’s identity is an inscription that says “BB/EH.”
He teams up with an art expert who can shed no further light on the mystery. Meanwhile, the Aldersons of Everlode Manor invite him to help them sell some of their books. Julia, the sister reveals a box of documents in a box labeled “never to be sold.” They all appear of value, but none more than what Peter finds at the bottom–a slim volume that appears to be a first edition of Robert Greene’s Pandosto, on which Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale was based. Valuable as the edition may be, the real find are the marginal notes that appear to be written in Shakespeare’s hand–the Holy Grail of literary finds. There was something else: a list of owners where once again the initials BB/EH appear. This launches a quest to determine the book’s genuineness, provenance, and particularly the identity of BB/EH and how the book and painting are connected.
There is much more at stake than simply a great literary find. An art scholar who is working on a book that may shed light on the identity winds up dead with Peter framed for the murder. He and Liz are faced with the challenge of finding the true murderer before Peter is arrested, which brings them into greater danger yet.
This narrative is broken up with two others. One is the narrative of the Pandosto’s history, passing from one owner or bookseller to the next. The other is the growth of Peter’s two loves: for antiquarian bookselling and restoration under Francis Leland, the curator of Ridgefield Library’s Amanda Devereaux rare book collection, and for another Amanda, Amanda Ridgefield, the granddaughter of Amanda Devereaux, and whose family gave the school its name.
The three narratives alternate, tracing the book to BB/EH, Peter and Amanda’s relationship until her death, and the exciting denouement of the story. Apart from the many late night lovemaking episodes on the carpet under the portrait of Amanda Devereaux in the library, which seemed a bit creepy, the alternating narratives worked, both sustaining and relieving the plot tension. As I noted earlier, the reader gains a glimpse into the meticulous cared of book preservation, restoration, and binding, and something of the world of antiquarian bookselling and the authentication of rare and valuable works. Combine this with a murder mystery, and you have a delightful diversion for bibliophile.