” There had always been something about the old man, his disinterest in money, a habit of deflecting conversation about himself with a wave of his hands, and the occasional far-off look that started in his eyes and quickly shut him off from the world. ” (Ch.12, p.94)
The premise of this debut is simply irresistible: ex-FBI now working as the security chief of US embassy in Paris strikes up a friendship with an old bouquiniste (booksellers of used and antiquarian books who ply their trade along large sections of the banks of the Seine). On vacation from his job, Hugo Marston visits Max Koche at his bookstall, where he buys a couple books that turn out to be worth a lot of money. Minutes later Max is kidnapped at gunpoint. When the police is slow to act, Hugo undertakes his own investigation, but jurisdiction and politics get in the way. Meanwhile, one of the valuable volumes is auctioned off to a mysterious, remote buyer.
Maybe it’s nothing, maybe he’s a friendless, petless, family-free freak. But it reminds me of something I saw once before. This guy, it wasn’t that he was hiding anything, it’s that he didn’t exist. Not as the person he made himself out to be. (Ch.24, p.192)
The mystery deepens as Max’s personal history is unearthed. An orphan who had survived the Holocaust, the grouchy, reticent bookseller had been a Nazi hunter, bringing all the traitorous collaborators to justice. The book itself, which Hugo has sold via auction, might be the lifeline and the ultimate clue to Max’s disappearance. The coded information it contains might have enraged some unknown enemies and ruffled their nerves. As more bouquinistes turn up dead in the river, and their stalls have been taken over by thugs who care nothing about books. Why, then, would they kill for books?
Hugo enlists his friend Tom, a semi-retired CIA operative, to get to the bottom of the matter. The investigation unveils a pattern of similar atrocities against the community of bouquinistes, possibly linked to feuding drug gangs. Hugo decides that the grim-faced leader of the bouquiniste association, one Bruno Gravois, who bribes his way to the position, must be close to the center of the mystery.
Bouquinistes weren’t kidnapped for books worth a few hundred dollars—if they were, a seller would go missing every day. And if the man had been after one of the books, Max would simply have told Hugo to hand it over. (Ch.3, p.27)
The Bookseller is a fast-paced crime mystery. It’s subtly and thoughtfully written, blending spies, Nazi collaborators, drug traffickers, murder, incompetent cops and suicide. What makes this book special is less the mystery, although it is intriguing and layered, but rather the surroundings, the flavors and atmosphere of Paris, and the historical tidbits about bouquinistes. The characters are well-drawn and the pace even. The Bookseller is not only wrapped in a web of history and crime, it is also a rare tribute to books—their stay power, their being vehicle of secret information, and their usage as cover-up.
302 pp. Seventh Street Books. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]