A swift, jaunty literary mystery.
Cambridge professor Bluma Lennon is flipping through a volume of Emily Dickinson poems when she’s struck by a car and killed. Her death, an accident, is proof to some that books are dangerous. The story picks up when her colleague, the narrator, takes over her teaching post and receives a tattered copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow-Line that’s addressed to Bluma. The inscription indicates that she’d given the book to a man named Carlos. The tome is sufficiently valuable, and the note intriguing enough that the narrator becomes determined to unravel its mystery. When summer vacation arrives, he goes to Uruguay and tracks down one of Carlos’s bibliophile cronies, Delgado, who tells the tale of Carlos and his 20,000-plus-volume library, his infatuation with the collection and its categorization and its eventual demise. At some point, Carlos’s single-minded consumption had begun to drive him mad, and his habits had become beyond eccentric. One of his quirks was reading 17th- century works by candlelight. A spark eventually ignited one of the pages, leaving Carlos with ash and reams of waterlogged print. Devastated, he exiled himself to a fishing town to live in a cabin constructed of concrete and salvaged water-bloated books. Ultimately, the narrator is compelled to visit the hermit, but his long journey finds only an empty hovel, strewn with rare titles. The fishermen give him a few details of Carlos’s life, mentioning he’d become obsessed with finding The Shadow-Line among the ruins and that he had disappeared while doing so. With that, the mystery is closed—but also open to re-interpretations of the cleverly invoked Shadow-Line, the story of a solitary man struggling with identity and sanity.
A brisk, evocative mystery for book-lovers who may feel bound to read it twice.