Monday, February 1, 2010

The Book of Secrets - Book Review

The Book of Secrets
by Tom Harper
Arrow Books 2009

For those of you who have read this blog over the last 3 years will know that I love ancient books. I have this fantasy of writing a novel about finding a famous lost ancient book that will change the world, or at least change history.

Well someone recently wrote that novel and I just finished reading it.
Please note - this is a LONG review.

The Book of Secrets is an excellent novel. While it does (like most books about history) go back and forth from present to past, it does so very smoothly. The storylines are both linear and are kept straight in both timelines by using the third person for the present and the first person for the past, thus making it easier to know what time you are reading about.

I have complained in previous reviews about choppy changes between present and past. Not in this book!!! For any future authors who like to travel between past and present, read this book and learn how the master does it.

Gillian used to work at the Cloisters in New York City - part of the famous Metropolitan Museum. Nick has been out of touch with Gillian for several months until the day he gets a webcam video and a file from her. The webcam video shows her fighting for her life in what looks like a hotel room, and being captured by unknown people. The file is a picture with a brief message attached - use this, the bear is key, help me, theyre coming. On her social network page (like facebook only the name of the site is never mentioned) is a message - Gillian is in mortal peril.

Nick decides to find Gillian. He starts at the Cloisters and speaks to Emily about Gillian and the picture file. She says she will find out. Then he gets a phone call from his roommate Bret who tells him to get home fast and to buzz him when he returns to the apartment.

Outside his apartment, Nick thinks about the strange request to Buzz Bret. So Nick use his laptop and the apartment wi-fi to check out the apartment through the webcam on Brets computer inside the the apartment. He sees Bret tied to a chair and a strange man in the apartment obviously waiting for him.

The kid next door comes out of his apartment and starts talking to Nick. On the laptop, Nick sees the strange man kill Bret and then shoot bullets through the door. Nick races for the stairs and gets to the roof. The bad man shows up shortly after and then leaves.

The police show up and Nick is questioned by Detective Royce. Nick goes to the police station where he is interrogated. He is the number one suspect for the murder of Bret.

After leaving the police station Nick gets a call from Emily at the Cloisters. She wants to meet him and talk about the picture and about Gillian. When they meet, she tells him that the picture, could be very valuable if it is real. It is a medieval playing card, one made by the Master of Playing Cards, but this card (eight of beasts) is not listed in the bibliography.

Nick asks how valuable the card might be.
$10,000 to $100,000 maybe, says Emily.
Worth killing over? Nick mumbles
What? asks Emily.
My roommate was killed last night and I think it was because of this card, Nick explains.

Emily tells Nick that the Cloisters sent Gillian to Paris - to an auction house. Nick calls the auction house and they explain that yes Gillian worked there briefly, but she disappeared two weeks before and has not been seen or heard from since.

Nick contacts another computer savvy friend and ask the friend to look at the picture file. The file is encrypted, it has a password. So Nick has to find the right encryption program, and then find the password.

The NYPD then call Nick and and request that he return to the station and "bring a friend". Nick takes a lawyer friend along and learns that yes the kid did hear the shooting while Nick was outside of the apartment. That is his only alibi. An 8 year old kid.

However the police still want to arrest him for the murder of his roommate Bret as the fanatastical story of a strange man waiting, and seeing the apartment though a webcam is somewhat unbeliveable. (The police are not very computer literate) As a compromise the police and the lawyer agree that Nick will hand over his passport because he is now a flight risk - he may skip to Paris. Nick goes back to the apartment with the lawyer. He finds his passport which is given to the police. He also finds and keeps his wallet.

While the clue to the password is the bear is key, Nick does not find the password until he takes a closer look at a picture of Gillian in his apartment. She is wearing a Brown University sweatshirt. The mascot of Brown University is Bruno the bear. Bruno is the right password. An address pops up.

177 rue de Rivoli
Boite 628

The lawyer calls Nick and says the kid has changed his story - that maybe he did not see Nick in the hallway when the gun went off. Maybe it was just before or just after the gun went off. The lawyer explains that the police now want to arrest Nick for murder.

Nick gets a call from Emily. She is terrified and in hiding in the bathrooms at the public library because she is being followed. Nick goes to the 5th avenue (and 42nd street) branch of the NYC Library and finds Emily. Back at Emily's apartment the door is open and the apartment has been ransacked and searched.

At a restaurant across the street, Nick says the playing card is like a virus - everything it touches, dies...first Gillian, then Bret and now Emily. Nick explains that his credit card has been cancelled, his roommate killed, his passport confiscated, and he is about to be arrested for murder. All because of that card.

Nick explains that there is also the Paris address. Emily decides that she will come with Nick. She purchases two plane tickets to Paris. Nick still has his british passport - the one that was in his wallet. His mother was british and the passport allowed him to work in Germany for several years without the hassle of a work permit. All perfectly legal.

In Paris the address turns out to be a bank. They open another safety deposit box there to establish their credentials, and then open box 628. Inside the box is an envelope. The two go to a hotel where they open it. A real original medieval playing card, a SIM microchip and a BnF card.

The card is genuine - the first of these cards to be discovered in a century - exclaims Emily who is very excited.
The BnF is for the Bibliotheque Nationale de France - only one of the best and most famous libraries in the world.
The SIM chip is from a cellphone.

Emily goes to the bibliotheque nationale and finds the books that Gillian was looking at, since she is using Gillians card. While she is there, some bad men try to abduct her. It's a good thing Emily had a can of pepper spray in her purse.

Nick takes the SIM chip at a payphone in the subway and finds records of 3 phone calls on it. He notes the numbers and names and then at an internet cafe, finds the addresses. One call was to someone named Simon, one was to a taxi cab company and one was to a respected particle physicist working at the Institut Georges Sagnac, just outside Paris.

Emily and Nick go to see the physicist. He denies ever having met Gillian. When they leave he mutters somthing to Emily. Not all the marks on the card are ink.

Nick calls Simon and discovers that he is the same person that Nick had spoken with from the auction house several days previously. Simon asks to meet them. He tells them the story of what Gillian did in the last days before she disappeared.

She and Simon had gone to an old house where they were to look at a collection of books and see what the conditions were and decide if they were good enough to be put up for auction. They discovered books and manuscripts - many old and totally unknown medieval mansuscripts - meaning that these had been in the family for many years and noone had ever seen them, let alone written about them.

Gillian apparently also discovered a medieval playing card from a book in this collection, which she pocketed. In academia, you must publish or perish. Gillian probably thought she could research and write about this card and establish her reputation as a serious historian.

Gillian disappeared 3 days after she and Simon had seen the collection and had it moved to Paris. That had been 3 weeks before.

At the taxi cab company, Nick learns that Gillian had taken the cab to the Gare de l'Est

Simon, Nick and Emily drive to Brussels to see the book. They remove it from its hermetically sealed containment before three thugs break in and try to take the book. Nick and Emily grab the book and steal a car and drive to Leige where they find an old professor of Emily's. The book turns out to be a bestiary. The front of the book says Written by the hand of Libellus and illuminated by Master Francis. He also made another book of beasts using a new art of writing.... Libellus is latin for little book. Master Francis refers to St Francis who had an affinity with animals.
On the page Emily discovers the new art of writing, hard point.

Hard point is where you write with a pen that has no ink. Kind of like making impressions in the paper. Have you ever written a note on the top paper of a pad, ripped that paper off and then seen the impression of your note on the next page? That's hard point writing. The comment continues ...which is hidden in the sayings of the kings of Israel.

Emily explains that the book called the Sayings of the Kings of Israel is a lost book mentioned in the Bible. She also says that the (handwritten) bestiary alone is valuable as it can definitely be attributed to the Master of Playing Cards.

Emily begins thinking out loud. Gillian must have known something we don't. She found the bestiary and the card inside it - either of which would be a major discovery - but she didn't tell anyone, not even Simon. Then she locked the card in a bank vault and put the book into the deep freeze (in Brussels) and disappeared. Presumably to look for the other bestiary. She knew something, something that made the other book even more valuable than this book.

Later that night when Emily and Nick are in their hotel room in Strasbourg, they see a news item on the TV about how the professor was shot and killed in his house in Leige, and how the police were now looking for the driver of the car that had visited him that morning. Once again Nick checks Gillians social chat page and sees there is a new message.

Are you safe? Did you find it? Please call me. I have a new number.
(posted by Olaf)

(aside - purely coincidental that my birth country is used)

Nick checks their webpage and finds the number. He calls long distance to NZ and asks for Olaf, only to be told to Stop calling us. I have told you three times that there is no Olaf here.

The next morning Nick and Emily leave town. They dont know where to go but they have to get out of Strasbourg. Outside the hotel, they are attacked yet again. Someone tries to take Emily's purse. They are not successful and are chased off. Nick chases one thug to a dead end street where he rips up a piece of paper. Nick and Emily scrabble around on the street trying to find all the bits of paper.

Now they have something to do. Nick contacts his friend back home again and asks for a safe place to do some scanning and digitising and also for a secure link to the FBI computer. Nick freelances for the FBI. They are directed to Karlsruhe just across the border in Germany.

At the technical college on Karlsruhe, they met Sabina who takes them to a computer outlet. The pieces are scanned into the computer. A special program is copied from the FBI computer in order to put the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. Since access tot he FBI computer is through a game, Nick and his friend discover that they must fight off some bad guys who want to disrupt the download and find Nick. They do not succeed. Nick gets the program downloaded and logs out. Then the computer rearranges the pieces into its millions of permutations to find something that makes sense. It takes 2 hours.

Emily - I know what Gillian found

The picture shows an ox with an unusually long tail.

Emily - What you are potentially looking at, is the first or second book ever printed.
Nick - The first book ever printed where?
Emily - First ever printed ever. To be precise the first ever printed with moveable type
Nick - Gutenberg??
Emily - Exactly

Gutenberg is credited with the invention of practical movable type. He made metal moulds, by the use of dies, into which he could pour hot liquid metal, in order to produce separate letters as the same shape as those written by hand. These letters were similar, more readable, and more durable than wooden blocks.

Such letters could be arranged and rearranged many times as the printer wished to create different pages from the same letters.

Gutenberg also introduced the use of printing press to press the type against paper. For this he used a hand press used in his times by wine industry. Ink was rolled over the raised surfaces of the hand-set letters held within a wooden frame, and the frame was then pressed against the paper. The press enabled sharp impressions on both sides of a sheet of paper and many repetitions. After a page was printed, the type could be reused for printing other pages.

The ink used by Gutenberg was also a new development. It was not really ink at all, more like a varnish or oil paint. Unlike writing-ink it is oil-based, not based on water. Water-based ink would simply run off the metal types whereas the thick, viscous oil-based varnish sticks to them. Gutenberg's printer's ink was distinctive in having a glittering surface. This is because of its high level of metal content, in particular copper, lead and titanium. It also contains sulphur.

Shortly after this, Nick is thinking about numbers. I have a new number, wwwjerseypaints dot co dot NZ. He suddenly realizes what the phone number is - the IP of the web address. He converts the URL to an IP which creates a phone number complete with German area code and this time Nick sucessfully speaks to Olaf. Olaf tells them to come to Mainz. He doesnt know where Gillian is now, but he knows where she was going.

In Mainz Nick and Emily meet Olaf in a church. Olaf is in a wheelchair. He tells them that just after the second world war, he became a historian and found a letter written by Johann Fust, Gutenbergs' business & financial partner. Now if you had gone to Mainz 500 years ago, noone knew Gutenberg. Gutenberg printed just one book. Fust and his son Peter Schoeffer printed 130 books. Everyone knew Fust.

The letter Fust wrote, was a complaint to the Catholic Church written in the late 1400s stating that one book had been stolen from him by thugs. After WW2, Olaf was warned by another thug to hand over the letter and all copies, translations and notes, and to never speak of this again.

Ten years later Olaf wrote a small footnote about Fust in a book he was writing. The book contract was cancelled, all copies of the book were pulped and the publisher was sued. Olaf was in a car accident which killed his wife and left him in a wheelchair.

The footnote said simply - We must consider the possibility that some books from Johann Fusts' collection, may have been confiscated, perhaps to the so-called Devils Library.

Some of the advanced copies of the book did survive. Gillian found one and contacted Olaf wanting to know more about the Bibliotheca Diabolorum, the Devils Library. She later found a reference to the Devils Library in the Mainz state archives, and then hid the evidence.

Nick and Emily also go to the Mainz archives, where eventually they find the right box of books. One reference is to Liber Bonasi. Emily translates this to Bonnacon. The picture of the ox is actually a Bonnacon. Then they finally hit pay dirt - another hardpoint reference - Bib Diab Portus Gelidus. Portus Gelidus turns out to be a small town on the Rhone river called Oberwinter.

While Nick and Emily are at the archives, Olaf is killed by more thugs for telling people about the Devils Library.

Nick and Emily travel to Oberwinter to investigate. There is an old monastery, now called a castle, in the hills above the village, and which privately owned. They climb up to the castle and are able to get inside. There they find Gillian locked up. She shows them the Devils Library - a library packed with forbidden books - the books that the Catholic Church works hard to suppress. Pretty much all the books about the black arts are here, says Gillian.

More thugs show up and the library goes up in flames but not before the three of them all get to look at the second bestiality book. This book was printed on the same printing press as the Gutenberg Bible, and was possibly the first real book ever printed with the Bible being the second book ever printed. (The first bestiality book had been hand written, not printed).

At the end of the book, the NYPD arrived to chase down Gillian. They were after Gillian all along as she was a thief - which is why she was forced to leave the Cloisters. They had hoped that Nick would lead the Interpol Art Squad to Gillian.

There is a comment from the book that I think is very fitting and probably true. The only things to come out of Italy are the catholic church and the mafia and they frequently end up working together.

In between the chapters of Nick and Emily's journey to find Gillian, are chapters about the life of Johannes Gutenberg. These chapters tell the story of his time as a gold smith apprentice and as a copyist. We also learn about Gutenbergs life as he struggled with inventing a new kind of press with moveable type. We also learn how the various business partners were part of Gutenbergs life. These chapters were were written in the first person, making it much easier to tell whose story I was reading at any time.

I read this for the Relic Novels challenge as Nick and Emily started off searching for a person and ended up searching for and finding a very valuable book. I enjoyed this novel very much.

I apologise for the very long review but so much was happening.


gregxx said...

I've just translated this book into Polish and I'm proofreading it at the moment. I was was wondering whether Liber Bonasi is real or fictional (that's how I came across your blog:)
What was particularly likeable to me was the slightly archaic style of the medieval plot. Hope the readers will enjoy it as much as we did.
Best regards
Grzegorz :)

Historia said...

Since I cannot find any mention of Liber Bonasi as being real, I am inclined to think that it is fictional.

And that is supported by the fact that I dont have a link to Liber Bonasi. But there is a link to the Bonnacon.

If I could have found any mention of Liber Bonasi online, believe me, there would have been a link.