Friday, October 7, 2022

Review: The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections by Eva Jurczyk

A library, a missing rare book, a novel set in academia, this mystery by Eva Jurczyk has all the elements of an intriguing read for book lovers.

Liesel Weiss is a quiet, self-effacing librarian in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at a large university. They have some impressive pieces in their collection thanks to the deep pockets of certain donors and the book opens with Liesel trying to figure out how to get into her boss's locked safe to show the donors the latest acquisition. As the Assistant Director, albeit supposed to be on sabbatical, Liesel should have the combination. She doesn't, and her boss is comatose after a stroke. But when she does finally get the safe open, Liesel will uncover even bigger problems: the rare, and not yet insured, Plantin Bible is missing. When she tells the university's President, he forbids her from involving the police, worried as he is about the donors pulling their support over the loss. Instead, she must keep the missing Bible secret and investigate with the help of her staff, but really essentially on her own. Then a young female librarian stops coming to work, suggesting that she is the one who stole the valuable Bible and other missing pieces, the loss of which were discovered in the course of Liesel's search for the Plantin. Will solving the theft be as easy as this?

The pacing here is quite slow, detailing the ins and outs of academic politics, the importance of the goodwill of donors, the personalities, oftentimes in conflict, of the librarians, and the glacial speed and tangled threads of life in academia. Liesel is rather a door mouse of a character, allowing her colleagues, over whom she is now in charge, to run roughshod over her, to insult and insinuate things about her, and to generally be insubordinate in the extreme. She is non-confrontational and quietly deliberate and most readers will spend a lot of time wanting to yell at her to get a backbone and get on with it. The secondary characters are not particularly appealing either and their secrets, as they come out, do not make them any more sympathetic. The mystery itself is not hard to solve and the flatness of the characters combined to make this a less compelling read than I'd have hoped.

*For anyone sensitive to it, note that there is a trigger warning for depression and suicide.

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