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Book Review - The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber

All the World's a Stage

The Book of Air and Shadows
Michael Gruber

Published by William Morrow

Review by W. R. Greer

What would a lost Shakespeare play be worth? In Michael Gruber's The Book of Air and Shadows, the estimate is 150 million dollars. Now there's a treasure, and every good thriller needs a treasure hunt. To heighten the tension, some valuable, or invaluable, item must be at the center of the quest. The more valuable it is, the more people will want to get their hands on it first, or steal it from someone who manages to grab it first. It's a mad, mad, mad world after all. Michael Gruber elevates The Book of Air and Shadows above the usual "treasure hunt thriller" with an intriguing premise, interesting characters, and enough wit and erudition to entertain the reader all the way to the end.

The Book of Air and Shadows starts with New York intellectual property lawyer Jake Mishkin hiding out in an Adirondack lake house and awaiting the arrival of Russian gangsters he's sure want to kill him. The lake house belongs to his friend, Mickey Haas, the Shakespeare expert at Columbia University. It was Mickey who suggested that a visiting English professor named Andrew Bulstrode retain Jake's legal services. Bulstrode left a 17th-century letter with Jake for safekeeping, one that if it was authentic, would be valuable in itself and spark heightened interest in the literary world. Bulstrode was found tortured to death soon after.

The letter in question was found by Albert Crosetti and Carolyn Rolly. Albert had dreams of making movies and Carolyn wanted to be a bookbinder. Both of them worked in an antiquarian book store where a small fire damaged a couple valuable books. Taking the damaged books back to Carolyn's loft to see what could be salvaged from them, they discovered the letter hidden within it. It was written in 1642 by Richard Bracegirdle who was facing death in the English civil war. It was a letter to his wife and son, telling of his life and exploits that led to that moment. He claimed to have known William Shakespeare and hinted at a Scottish play that Shakespeare allegedly wrote, but was never performed. Along with the letter were some papers written in ciphered texts, and the assumption was that these ciphered pages would lead to the location of the missing play.

After a night of passion, Albert and Carolyn went to visit Bulstrode at Columbia University and sold him the Bracegirdle letter for much less than what it was actually worth. Bulstrode left the letter with Jake Mishkin and was murdered. Carolyn then disappears, leaving a heartbroken Albert Crosetti behind. Bulstrode's niece, Miranda, comes from Toronto to visit Jake's law firm to ask about her uncle's belongings. Jake falls hard for her and gives her the Bracegirdle letter, but she's soon kidnapped and the letter disappears. The game's afoot.

Crosetti still has the ciphered pages and pines for the missing Carolyn. Jake pines for the missing Miranda and is being threatened by Russian mobsters who assume he has the ciphers. Jake knows nothing of the missing ciphered pages and wonders how the mobsters know about them, since Bulstrode never mentioned them either. Losing the Bracegirdle letter also places Jake in legal jeopardy. It was part of an estate that the law firm had to retain until probate proceedings decided who owned the items in Bulstrode's estate. Jake knows his only hope is to find the ciphered pages.

Jake Mishkin and Albert Crosetti fill the necessary roles in the treasure hunt thriller. Crosetti is decent middle-class guy trying to do the right thing and hope his dreams come true. He still lives with his widowed mother in Queens, his father was a well-known cop, and his sisters are an attorney and a cop. His mom is well-read woman who works at the New York Public Library, and she draws on the expertise of people she knows to help crack the code of the ciphered pages. Jake is well-to-do lawyer with a streak of self-hate and self-destruction running through him. He's still married to Amalie, who refuses to divorce him despite his constant womanizing. Jake lives apart from his wife and children, but visits them often. Both Jake and Crosetti have extended families who are now in danger from Russian mobsters who will stop at nothing to get what they want. Jake's fling with Miranda, which led to the loss of the Bracegirdle letter and the endangering of their family, is the last straw for his wife, though.

The Book of Air and Shadows is told from three perspectives. Jake Mishkin tells the story in retrospect while hiding out at Mickey's lake house. Albert Crosetti's story is told in third-person as he struggles to understand the ciphers and find out what happened to Carolyn. Richard Bracegirdle tells his story through his letters, giving a peek into life in the 17th century and how he was hired to spy on William Shakespeare in an attempt to ruin the famous bard. The Book of Air and Shadows takes this treasure hunt and turns up the intensity. To protect their loved ones, Jake and Crosetti must find the missing play, although there is the possibility that if it even once existed, it may be lost to time forever. To make matters worse, there is evidence that it may all be a hoax. Bulstrode had already suffered a devastating career setback earlier when he authenticated forged Shakespeare documents. The Russian gangsters, and there appears to be more than one group involved, will settle for nothing less than the discovery of the missing play. Who they work for remains a mystery.

Michael Gruber keeps the pace of The Book of Air and Shadows moving at a suspenseful clip. There are double crosses, kidnappings, gun battles, the search for clues which might never be understood, and an ambiguous understanding of just where the truth lies. The truth is something different to Jake and Crosetti. At one point Jake explains that all a lawyer does it concoct a fiction that seems more realistic to a jury than the opposing counsel's fiction. Crosetti, who keeps seeing everything through a filmmaker's lens, sees reality created by the movies. He keeps predicting their enemies' next moves by what they would do if it were all a movie, since life imitates art. He explains this to Jake at one point:

"No, and 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."
Jake Mishkin and Albert Crosetti don't even like each other, but the search for the treasure of the lost Shakespeare play helps illuminate truths in both of their lives. Along the way, they learn a lot about cryptology, Shakespeare, 17th-century England, and fortunately for them, the true meaning of love. The Book of Air and Shadows delivers not just the fun and danger of a treasure hunt, but a devilish trick where the realities of Jake and Crosetti's lives, as well as Richard Bracegirdle's, twist and turn and constantly redefine themselves. Hidden among the treasure they seek, both men were given the opportunity to find themselves. Finding the lost Shakespeare play, if it really exists, is just a bonus, albeit a bonus that might either save or doom their lives if they're successful.

The Book of Air and Shadows never seems to take itself too seriously, which adds to its enjoyment. Michael Gruber has delivered a novel where he hides universal truths among the treasure hunt. The result is much more fun than the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Perhaps that's his next novel.

Copyright © 2007

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