It's the middle of the night when your contact phones. He has selected a particularly out of the way, perhaps a little too out of the way, site for your meeting. Carefully you prepare yourself for sneaking out to your clandestine meeting, ensuring that you have to hand the resources supplied by your client.
Twice you suspect that someone has tailed you to the rendezvous, but you know that can't be possible. Who could be on to you? Only your client and the contact know about this so unless one of them are playing a double game, there shouldn't be anyone there. You're jumping at shadows you tell yourself.
He's exactly where he says he would be, a small shop on the Left Bank in Paris specializing in the kind of antiquities people like your client would pay a fortune. Fifteen badly hand written pages of foolscap that has seen better days. You quickly hand over the agreed upon amount and scurry off into the night with the papers secreted in the depths of your bag.
The adrenaline is only now starting to dissipate as you have yet again negotiated the paths needed to walk through the mysteries of the antiquarian book world. You won't breath easily until you've handed the pages of manuscript to your client, but the worst is over now. The buy has been successfully negotiated.
If you've never thought of the world of antiquarian books as being something that could inspire passion, betrayal, and even murder, The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte will open the casket lid on a hither-to unknown world of skulduggery, academia, bibliophiles, and mystery. You will be drawn into a world full of arcane knowledge relating to authorship, bindings, publications, engravings and forgery that is the back drop for one of the finest literary mysteries ever written.
The story revolves around Lucas Corso a book detective for hire. His clients, the rich, famous and infamous, hire him to track down rare titles, investigate a manuscript's provenance, or to act as the intermediary in a sale. His only loyalties are to the books and the money he is paid by his client to procure them. Like all good mercenaries he could one day be working for you, aiding your efforts to buy a rare 2nd printing with a misspelling, and the next you'll find he has been there an hour before you securing the rights to first refusal for an estate sale of books.
As the title suggests The Club Dumas focuses upon a particular work of Alexandra Dumas, most famous of course for his novels concerning the adventures of the Musketeers, Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d'Artagnan. But it's not merely a rare edition of The Three Musketeers that is the focus of Corso's attentions. No he's been asked to verify the authenticity of fourteen pages of handwritten manuscript purporting to be part of the original serialization by Dumas.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Doyle, Dickens, and others, Dumas wrote in weekly instalments for newspapers and an adoring public. As we follow Corso around from Spain, to Portugal, and France, we not only learn a little bit more about the manuscript, Dumas himself, but the nature of the man who is carrying the manuscript. Is he as cynical and manipulative as our narrator would have us believe (the narrator is a character in the book who crosses over the literary "fourth wall" periodically to play a featured role periodically), caring only for the pieces of silver he receives at the end of the day? Or does he encyclopaedic knowledge of books and their intricacies come from some place deeper inside of him?
Hung on the wall of his apartment is a memento to his romantic nature, a sabre carried by some long ago relative who fought at Waterloo with Napoleon against Wellington. (Could Corso, be a diminutive honouring Napoleon's birth land of Corsica?) He will recreate the battle in miniature at home, with the French troops victorious as Marshall Ney makes the charge that would have broken the English line, when in reality he was too little too late in the battle that shaped the fate of Europe for the next hundred years or more.
Does his endless re enactments of history with the ending changed reflect his own feelings of regret over opportunities missed? How much does his own history affect his decisions over the course of the book? When an author is able to plant these questions in your mind like Perez does with his Corso, it goes a long way towards explaining a character's motivations.
Corso himself is as much part of the mystery to be solved for the reader, as are the two manuscripts that he carries with him. (Give me a second I'll get to the second one) While Perez has the events of the story solve the obvious literary mysteries, we are left on our own to solve the puzzle of his protagonist.
The second manuscript sends Corso on a quest. While the Dumas fragment is seemingly a simple matter of verifying its authenticity, the same can't be said for his other assignment. There are only three known copies of The Nine Doors in existence. A famous book of the occult that was written in the 1600s, its printer was burned at the stake, and all other copies of the text were committed to the flames.
Supposedly the illustrations in the book, engravings actually, hold the key for summoning the Devil. A client of Corso's has managed to lay hands upon a copy, and asks Corso to compare it to the two known authentic copies in existence in an attempt to verify the authenticity of his own. But as Corso traipses around Europe with these two texts in his luggage things start to happen that send events spiralling out of his control.
Who is the mysterious man with the scar who keeps appearing on the periphery of his sight no matter what town he is in? Who is the strange young woman who attaches herself to Corso claiming she is there to protect him? Protect him from what and from whom he wonders?
He should wonder, because he is starting to leave a trail of bodies and damaged books behind him. He manages to get in and visit with each of the two owners of the other copies of The Nine Doors and compare the texts. But within twenty-four hours of him being their guest, both people are dead and their copy of the text has been burnt, minus the nine engravings. Those had been removed prior to the books destruction.
Corso had already deduced that there were minor differences in some of the engravings from book to book. What is the significance of those differences, and why has the murderer destroyed the text but retained the engravings? Is Corso at risk of the same thing happening to him? Is that why the man with the scar is following him? What, if any, connection is there between the Dumas manuscript and The Nine Doors?
These are the mysteries Corso is faced with as he races across Europe looking to such diverse sources of help as the text of the The Three Musketeers, Sherlock Holmes and his powers of deduction, and two of the finest book forgers in Europe. All the while he is forced to stay under cover as he is now under suspicion for the murders of the two late owners of The Nine Doors.
The Club Dumas is not just a mystery story, or a tale of the occult, although it can be read as either, it is also an appreciation for a genre of literature that has fallen by the wayside in our cynical age of realism and technology. The adventure stories of the nineteenth century with their swashbuckling, romantic heroes have been relegated to the lower rungs of literature as the ages have passed.
It is not surprising that the man who has given us the memorable character of Captain Alatriste should have written this remarkable story that is not only a page turner in terms of plot and intrigue, but a treatise on the worth of those stories that still could excite our passions and fire our imaginations if we would only let them.
Read The Club Dumas because it is well written and filled with memorable characters and not only will you find yourself embroiled in a great mystery story, but will also be reminded of the reasons for reading: the stirring of the imagination, the excitement of adventure, the enchantment of a story, and the escape from reality that all books once offered.
(Originally published August 2006)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.