by Travis McDade
During the 1920s and 1930s, libraries didn't discriminate between rare, first edition books and newer, cheaper ones. All were generally available in the open stacks, making them prime targets for book thieves. Every year, thousands of rare books disappeared from library shelves across the country and made their way, scrubbed of identifying marks, to the book dealers of New York City's Book Row, where unscrupulous dealers purchased the books and, in some cases, even hired thieves to grab specific titles for them. After years of turning a blind eye to the problem, libraries finally began to fight back with new security measures. After a particularly rare book was swiped from the New York Public Library, special investigator G. William Bergquist knew that the only way to stop the continuous onslaught was to take down the most prolific thieves and the man who organized them: Harry Gold, a well-known book dealer and a leader in the rare books black market.
The history of the buying, selling and stealing of antiquarian books is fascinating, and the Great Depression proved a particularly lively time for it, since rare books were so easy to steal from public collections. As in all good mysteries, there are heroes and villains, and McDade does a great job of bringing these men to life in vivid portrayals.
Unfortunately, the book is dreadfully disorganized. Names will appear on a page but the man himself won't be introduced until a later chapter. The narrative jumps around chronologically and switches locations suddenly, making it difficult to keep up with the author's story. Although there is, in theory, a main criminal case being traced – the disappearance of Edgar Allan Poe's Al Aaraaf from the NYPL – the book is less one overarching mystery than a collection of short stories about book thieves in the 19th and 20th centuries. With some restructuring and a more linear timeline, the plot would have been much, much easier to follow, and the book might have lived up to the advertising copy that claims it is “a fast-paced, true-life thriller”.
3 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama
2011: Exit the Actress by Priya Parmar
2010: News: Press “Pause” on the Piranha
2009: Giveaway #9: Three Chinese Stories WINNER!
2008: My Husband's Sweethearts by Bridget Asher