Charlie Lovett The Bookman’s Tale Alma Books 2013
What bibliophile could resist the allure of a title such as The Bookman’s Tale? And what lover of Elizabethan literature, or history, or whodunits, or ghost stories, or romance, could fail to be intrigued by a novel that promises to combine all these genres? Certainly not this reader, and I’m glad to report that — even with one or two caveats — I was not disappointed. In addition, we’re informed that the author is both writer and successful playwright, a former antiquarian bookseller and an ‘avid’ book collector who, with his wife, splits his time between North Carolina and Oxfordshire; so, with a novel that involves all these elements we naturally expect a novel that fully convinces us in terms of supporting details.
Peter Byerly is the antiquarian bookseller from North Carolina who retreats to his cottage in Kingham, Oxfordshire after the tragic death of his wife Amanda in the mid-nineties of the last century. When he finally emerges from his seclusion to visit his other love in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh Marches, he is shocked to discover a 19th-century watercolour of what appears to be his dead wife flutter from a classic tome on Shakespearean forgeries. Thus it is that the present collides, not just with his own past, but with that of his wife, a Victorian family feud, an 18th-century literary disaster and Shakespeare’s own times. Along the way there is murder most foul and deeds of darkness, a touching romance and a basic background to bookbinding. The whole centres around a first edition of Richard Greene’s 1588 novel Pandosto: the Triumph of Time which may or may not feature Shakespeare’s own marginal notes but which certainly inspired The Winter’s Tale (probably around 1611, though not published till 1623).
Pandosto and The Winter’s Tale both include elements that are reflected in The Bookman’s Tale: the lost wife, the long period of mourning by the widower, the artefact that imitates life so well that it may well be the original. But do not expect exact parallels; the modern novel’s best epitaph may be from the title page of Pandosto itself: “although by the meanes of sinister fortune Truth may be concealed, yet by Time in spight of fortune it is most manifestly revealed”.
I did enjoy this out-of-the-ordinary whodunit, the twists and turns, the interweave of episodes from the history of this first edition copy of Greene’s play. Peter’s inordinate shyness, perhaps an indication of him being on the autistic spectrum, is largely believable, his growing confidence and resourcefulness a sign of his emergence from the depression brought about by Amanda’s untimely death. Like most cozy mysteries — and, make no mistake, The Bookman’s Tale is in this tradition, despite its learning — the wrap-up of the denouement is neatly and satisfyingly done, even if lacking the messy resolution of real-life crime.
Only two little niggles blotted Lovett’s otherwise workmanlike plotting. I was not particularly convinced with the late 16th- and early 17th-century dialogue that greeted us in the earlier part of the novel (sample: “The glove-maker’s son is writing sonnets! Sonnets, can you imagine …”) nor by the ‘Elizabethan’ missive that appeared towards the end. But I suppose such treatment is preferable given the possible derision that might greet an attempt to reproduce the nuances of past speech, given the anachronistic mock-archaic language that has been produced by some popular writers of historical romance.
The other niggle concerns the differences between American and British English. Familiar with the linguistic environment of both milieus Lovett largely avoids the obvious faux amis such as drapes/curtains, motorway/highway and pants/trousers, but in allowing Peter’s English fellow sleuth Liz to happily dump the expected ‘torch’ in favour of ‘flashlight’ he briefly lets slip the mask of realism.
But you’ll be glad to know that such quibbles are swept aside by a hugely enjoyable tale, with primary characters in whom I was happy to invest sympathy and detail enough to evoke time and place. You can do worse than spare some hours immersing yourself in this, what the publishers call a ‘novel of obsession’ — for once, without much chance of contradiction.