Book Review: The Department Of Rare Books And Special Collections by Eva Jurczyk
Liesl Weiss has been suddenly thrust into a position of leadership at her Toronto university’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, following the debilitating stroke that put its previous head, Christopher Wolfe, in a coma. While her colleague in charge of religious acquisitions, Max Hubbard, is unhappy that he wasn’t given the position – never mind its interim nature – her other closest colleague Francis Churchill is far more supportive, though perhaps a little too solicitous. If Miriam Peters, the rather withdrawn head of the modern manuscripts division, has an opinion, she’s keeping it to herself.
So Liesl isn’t sure who to turn to for support when she finally figures out the combination to Christopher’s safe and discovers that the valuable manuscript that they’d only lately acquired at auction is not inside as it’s supposed to be. Christopher’s deep, donation-lined pockets had scared off all other presumptive bidders on the Plantin Polyglot Bible, paying only half a million dollars for it in the end, to the grumbling of the auction house. Now the department’s generous donors are clamoring to see for themselves the valuable multi-volume work they’ve helped acquire.
At first, Liesl convinces herself that the Plantin was merely misplaced, perhaps shuffled off into the stacks by accident. She fobs off the donors for as long as she can, but as the days pass, the strength of her conviction that the Plantin was stolen only grows. Despite knowing how devoted University President Lawrence Garber is to maintaining their institution’s infallible image, she goes to him for advice in recovering it, and is told:
“Of course. I agree. You should explore every possible inroad.”
“Including the police,” Liesl looked at the dust, not at Garber. “Including the possibility that the book was stolen.”
“Not this again,” Garber said.
“President Garber.” Liesl tried to sit on the edge of the desk. “Do you really not think a theft is a possibility?”
He leaned over. She thought he was going to put his head in his hands, but he stretched out and touched his toes. “I never said I didn’t think it could be a thief. I said it was up to us to solve this internally.” He gave a quiet grunt as he leaned into the stretch. “We are trying to raise a billion dollars for this university.”
Hampered by this devotion to maintaining reputation, Liesl is ready to just go along to get along – in this and in pretty much all other aspects of her life – until one of her colleagues abruptly disappears. Suspicion for the theft quickly falls on the missing librarian, and President Garber is ready to close the case when the alleged thief is found dead, though with no sign of the missing book. Half a million dollars is nothing, after all, compared to the ongoing largesse of trusting donors. Liesl, however, refuses to believe in such a tidy ending, and that’s even before she discovers more foul play afoot within her department’s walls. Will she be able to get to the bottom of what’s going on despite the odds stacked up against her?
This modern cozy mystery is a bibliophile’s dream, set primarily in a building devoted to the protection and exhibition of rare tomes. There’s a lot of great writing here on the imperative to not only restore but also to disseminate knowledge: what is the point of preservation, after all, if the materials are therefore rendered inaccessible to all but a select few? The love of books is palpable throughout, but especially when Liesl is considering how her department stores their volumes:
Liesl had always loved the basements. There was no intellectual arrangement of materials here; the books were shelved by size so that shelf space could be used to its maximum capacity and so the fragile old volumes could act as supports to their neighbors. The result was that Darwin might sit next to Shakespeare, and in Liesl’s imagination they might convene and brew new ideas that would be impossible under the limits of the Library of Congress classification system. Each stack sat on a roller so it could be pushed flush with its neighbor, leaving the books alone to their secrets once a visitor pushed them aside to view the next bookshelf and then the next.
Liesl herself is a complicated creation, a woman who spends far too much time caring about how others view her, yet in the end the strongest proponent for choosing to do what’s right over upholding an unimpeachable facade, at least in the case of the university and its grandees. With chapters shifting forward and backward in time, the narrative elegantly seeds its subplots and mysteries, culminating in a satisfying conclusion that none of our characters might have been able to foretell, but which does right by both the majority of its cast and also, as with any book worth preserving, the public good.