If the publishing industry is any guide (and, of course, it's
not), expect to see a new line of librarian action figures under
the tree this Christmas. Kids will clamor for Marian(TM), armed
with her stubby, eraserless pencil. She vanquishes foes with a
For the second time this year, the dusty souls who read newspaper
book sections are being rewarded with a high-adventure novel about
an intrepid librarian. (You heard it here first: Tom Cruise will
star in a new thriller called "Mission Impossible: 312.594.232.")
In March, Ross King published "Ex-Libris," a wildly complex novel
about a 17th-century bookworm risking his life to find a missing
Now, Allen Kurzweil has set a rollicking, witty suspense tale in
the New York Public Library. The hero of "The Grand Complication"
is a strange reference librarian named Alexander Short, a comic
hybrid of Sigmund Freud and Edgar Allan Poe.
By profession and temperament, he's a compulsive cataloger. He
always wears a little notebook "girdled" to his waist for making
lists of everything around him in secret code. When he's feeling
anxious, he retreats to a small cage in his apartment to organize
his ever-growing collection of call slips.
This behavior hardly sets him apart from the other weird
shelvers, restorers, researchers, and petty dictators who keep New
York's great repository running smoothly, despite their comically
bizarre conflicts. (There's an acrimonious battle over proper use
of cellophane tape.) With this novel, Kurzweil has so much fun in
the library that he's sure to lose his checkout privileges.
Alexander's adventure begins when a gracious old man asks him to
find a book called "Secret Compartments in Eighteenth-Century
Furniture." For Alexander, it's an irresistible encounter. He, too,
has an interest in secret compartments. He's entranced by the old
man's handwriting, "executed with confident ascenders and tapering
exit strokes." And he's captivated by the man's "improbably
literary name: Henry James Jesson III."
With his typically arched tone, Alexander notes that "in the
vocabulary of the library cataloger, Jesson was infuriatingly
N.E.C. (Not Elsewhere Classified)." But the old man has no trouble
enticing Alexander to his town house filled with antiques and odd
contraptions. He rejects modern conveniences like phones,
television, fluorescent lights, and any cheese wrapped in plastic. …