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Originally published April 6, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 6, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Book review

A lost Shakespeare play? Let the intrigue begin

Seattle writer Michael Gruber has never been afraid of big ideas. Take his trilogy about Miami cop Jimmy Paz: "Tropic of Night," "Valley...

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance


Michael Gruber will sign "The Book of Air and Shadows" at noon Tuesday, Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle; free (206-587-5737).

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Seattle writer Michael Gruber has never been afraid of big ideas. Take his trilogy about Miami cop Jimmy Paz: "Tropic of Night," "Valley of Bones" and "Night of the Jaguar." They're robust books that combine the thrill of swift plots with meaty subjects like religious passion, the supernatural, ethnographic oddities, shamans, bleeding-heart environmentalists and the limitless intricacies of spicy Cuban food.

Gruber's new novel, "The Book of Air and Shadows" (HarperCollins, 464 pp., $24.95), is equally fearless, intricate and intelligent. Instead of the hot tropics, however, Gruber sends us now to chillier climes: the world of New York lawyers, British academics and rare books.

A once distinguished, now disgraced professor has found some letters that were apparently written in the 1600s by a British soldier named Richard Bracegirdle. There are tantalizing hints that Bracegirdle was a government spy whose target was none other than William Shakespeare.

Not only that; the letters indicate the existence of a previously unknown manuscript by the Bard. The problem is, the details are encoded. Finding the play means cracking a serious cipher.

Author appearance


Michael Gruber will sign "The Book of Air and Shadows" at noon Tuesday, Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle; free (206-587-5737).

To English-lit jocks, this is pretty hot stuff. So little is known about the real Shakespeare that the tiniest scrap of Bard-related information will keep academics happily arguing for decades. And a lost Shakespeare play? Wow!

But are Bracegirdle's letters real? If not, who forged them? Is there really a lost play? Is the whole thing an enormous scam, or a series of scams within scams? Who is working in whose interests? And what's with those scary Russian mobsters?

All this emerges through two separate but interlocking stories that gradually converge, meshing completely only at the last moment. Their central characters are very different men.

Jake Mishkin is a top-flight intellectual property lawyer in Manhattan. He's funny, smart and reasonably brave, with an interesting family history (a brother who's a former thug turned Jesuit priest, a father who was book-

keeper to the Jewish Mafia). But Jake is, in some ways, not a nice fellow. He's arrogant, and he gets helplessly stupid around attractive women.

Meanwhile, there's Albert Crosetti, an aspiring young filmmaker. Al's a decent guy who still lives with his mom in middle-class Queens and toils thanklessly for a rare-book dealer. He also falls hard for Carolyn, an enigmatic and larcenous bookbinder who is somehow mixed up in the Bracegirdle story.

From a simple synopsis of "The Book of Air and Shadows," you might be tempted to lump it alongside any number of other thrillers with intellectual pretensions. Long-lost, priceless document? Check. Frantic, globe-hopping search? Check. Intricate puzzles and fiendishly clever solutions? Check and check again.

Sound familiar? It should. Such tales are nothing new, and they're seriously in fashion right now. Ever since "The Da Vinci Code" inexplicably went ballistic, the search for the next big ticket has been on. Let a hundred egghead-thrillers bloom!

Most are pallid, pathetic wannabes. So what does Gruber's book have that something like "The Da Vinci Code" lacks?

Well, stylish and confident prose, for starters. Realistic characters. Dialogue that respects a reader's intelligence. A smart and original plot. A smooth sense of timing, a healthy dose of skepticism, and — by no means least — a sense of humor.

Not that "The Book of Air and Shadows" is perfect. Its cryptographic details threaten to swamp the narrative at times, and you may want to slap Jake around a bit and tell him to get a grip. Overall, though, Gruber keeps the various juggling balls of his provocative tale high in the air.

Adam Woog's column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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