Ex-Libris by Ross King
In my continuing search for a good bookish mystery (see also: People of the Book and The Club Dumas), I picked up Ross King’s Ex-Libris. My previous reads in this genre convinced me that I wanted a story that dealt with books as a main plot point, had some mystery to it, did not involve the supernatural unnecessarily, and was preferably in some way historical. Having now read Mr. King’s book, I would like to add that this story should also be coherent, interesting, and, if at all possible, not utterly pointless.
Ex-Libris is a historical mystery taking place is Restoration England with a bookseller named Isaac Inchbold who lives in the also charmingly named Nonsuch House on London Bridge with his apprentice, Monk. So far so good. Also good: Mr. King’s flashbacks to about fifty years earlier to tell the story of a Bohemian librarian (literally here, as in “from Bohemia,” which was actually its own country and not just another way of describing vagrant artists), one of the Queen of Bohemia’s ladies in waiting, and the mysterious/dashing Sir Ambrose Plessington, an Englishman and adventurer with a mysterious past, present, and future. Mr. King is also a master of creating characters with full humanity and wonderful names (Inchbold, Phineas Greenleaf, Dr. Pickvance, etc.) throughout the book.
Unfortunately, Mr. King takes these promising pieces and smashes them into a confusing and, in the end, pointless adventure tale. Inchbold is summoned by the mysterious Lady Marchamont who wants him to track down an extremely rare manuscript codex that once belonged to her dead father, Sir Ambrose. One of the (many) frustrating parts of Mr. King’s narrative is Lady Marchamont and her vagaries and apparent unwillingness to elucidate any details of Inchbold’s mission. She is a mysterious character prone to monologue and, even though she is still vaguely likable (a frustration Inchbold shares with the reader), the very fact of her mysteriousness is never examined. She remains, from start to finish, a puzzling character with various characteristics (selfish, irrational, scientific, lovely, poor, proud, intelligent, cordial, monomaniacal…the list goes on) attached to her while none seem to stick. Who is she? We literally find out by the end, but this knowledge does not result in any clarity.
Towards the end of the story, Mr. King attempts a classic “ah, but nothing is what it has seemed to be!” in the plot, which is vaguely interesting at first, but soon proves that not only is nothing what it seemed, nothing had any point! The book ends with an epilogue set some years down the road where Mr. King indulges in some closure nonsense (Monk is married with children! Inchbold is old and frail! They’re still selling books, don’t worry!). The provided epilogue/closure does nothing to assuage the reader’s feeling that the entire adventure could just as easily not happened at all with exactly the same results.
Mr. King is a superb author who is thoroughly comfortable in the past and does a fantastic job of recreating Restoration London. From the little details (a character drinking coffee out of a saucer rather than a mug) to the larger stuff (London Bridge being lifted once a day), Mr. King takes you a journey to London in the mid-1600s. He also interestingly engages in the way a researcher had to go about finding information in that time (in involves many twisty archival records, candles, fusty old records books, and absolutely no finding aids). I never considered how difficult research must have been back then nor had I thought about people doing research at all, so it was interesting to see the difficulties they would have encountered.
In the end, however, Mr. King’s historical prowess withers unhappily beside his twisting and ultimately pointless plot. And I most sincerely wish the story had been able to rise to the occasion.