Friday 5 March 2010

Library of the Dead by Glenn Cooper

This almost certainly will not be found in the SFF section of the bookshop, but Library of the Dead is one of that curious genre of modern thrillers which have strong fantasy elements. I should warn you in advance that this review contains spoilers, as it’s otherwise difficult to discuss.

Several different story threads are followed. Most of the tale takes place in present-day USA but there are also several chapters set much earlier in England; in 1947 and in the 13th and 8th centuries. As you might expect, all these threads are woven together in the end.

The present-day thread starts out as a conventional detective story. FBI agent Will Piper, formerly an expert on serial killers but now approaching a drink-sodden retirement, is called upon to make one last effort to catch the “Doomsday Killer”; someone is sending postcards to people showing just a coffin and the date of their deaths, which duly come to pass. The problem is that nothing except the postcards seems to connect the victims, some of whose deaths appear to be natural.

A mystery element is introduced early on when an unnamed cargo, dug up by archaeologists in Britain in 1947 but considered too problematic to retain, is transferred to the USA. Piper’s present-day efforts to identify the killer are then alternated with scenes from the 8th Century in which the nature of the secret is soon revealed; a strange child is born who cannot speak but has only one obsessive activity - writing down people's names and their locations, plus their dates of birth and death. Not in the past, but in the future.

One of the present-day characters, a former classmate of Piper, works at a secret government establishment which is gradually revealed as being devoted to analysing the mass of data discovered by the archaeologists. The pace accelerates as Piper tries to solve the problem while being pursued by ruthless government agents determined to prevent the secret from being revealed.

This isn’t a bad read, its 400 pages slipping by easily enough. There is certain lack of tension caused by the fact that the historical scenes soon make it pretty obvious to the reader what the “Doomsday killings” are all about, while Piper remains in ignorance until close to the end. However, there is an unexpected and dramatic twist in the final chapter, set in the 13th century, which casts everything in an entirely new light.

This odd kind of mixture of realistic present-day thriller mixed with supernatural elements (frequently involving archaeology and ancient secrets) appears to be increasingly popular, although logically one might expect that the separate elements would appeal to entirely different audiences. Ironically, it means that there is a large number of readers who wouldn’t dream of reading a mainstream fantasy novel but who are, nonetheless, reading fantasy!

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