Home / Opinion / The bibliomystery code

In his best-selling and now almost classic novel The Shadow of the Wind, Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón takes us to atmospheric old bookshops and mysterious libraries in Barcelona, such as the top-secret “Cemetery of Forgotten Books" run by a bookish sect. Only select people are allowed inside, and after they are initiated, they get to adopt one novel each.

The plot concerns a boy called Daniel who picks a very special, rare book—the eponymous The Shadow of the Wind about whose author, Julián Carax, precious little is known. Carax doesn’t seem to have published anything else and this sole book of his seems to be the object of highly venomous hatred by a mysterious stalker who tries to destroy every single copy printed.

Naturally, Daniel gets obsessed by the novel and attempts to find out everything about its author and the back-story. On his quest he has to outsmart a particularly crooked policeman and deal with some other nasty types.

This spooky mystery, a blend of detective story and coming-of-age novel with Gothic horror elements, meta-fiction and Spanish history thrown in for good measure, is both unputdownable and unforgettable—at least if you love books (and if you read this column you surely do).

Zafón, who had previously written for children, done a bit of screenwriting, and worked in advertising, struck gold with this particular novel. After it was translated into English 10 years ago, it has sold millions of copies worldwide, turning it into the all-time biggest Spanish best-seller. In Barcelona, nowadays, you can take guided walks through the places described in the novel (although the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books" does not exist in real life, unfortunately).

But more significantly, The Shadow of the Wind is one of the most popular examples of the otherwise rather obscure genre—or subgenre of crime fiction—known as bibliomysteries. However, it is a genre that is growing rapidly.

I was introduced to it by the famous Bangalore-based bibliophile Pradeep Sebastian, author of The Groaning Shelf And Other Instances of Book Love, who is currently writing what might well become India’s first bibliomystery when it is published next year. When I asked him what it is with this particular genre that attracts him so strongly, he quipped, “The bibliomystery sumptuously indulges both the mystery aficionado and the inner bibliophile in us, mixing murder with book madness."

So it’s completely a book-lover thing: If you love books, then what can be better than to read about other people who are mad enough about books to commit murder?

Typically, the plot of a bibliomystery is set in a library (say the Bodleian at Oxford), an antiquarian bookshop, or a publishing house. It would furthermore have lots of hard-to-decipher clues hidden inside books, a mix of shady and gallant rare book collectors, and a forgotten writer or two. It could also, of course, involve a famous real writer from the past but used fictionally, perhaps even as a murder victim or a sleuth. Both Shakespeare and Mark Twain have featured in bibliomysteries.

If this sounds like something up your street, then worth checking out are The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (also made into a film starring Sean Connery as a sleuthing medieval monk), The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (revolving around, among other things, The Three Musketeers), The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling by Lawrence Block (where the protagonist is a book dealer and part-time burglar) and The Bookman’s Wake by John Dunning (who also wrote Booked to Die). Even serious novelists like Gustave Flaubert (Bibliomania) and A.S. Byatt (Possession) have written novels that might qualify as bibliomysteries.

Several best-selling pulp writers have touched upon the fringes of this otherwise slightly esoteric genre: For example, Raymond Chandler’s early noir classic The Big Sleep (made into a motion picture starring Humphrey Bogart) has elements of bibliomystery to it—there’s a pornographic lending library at the core of the plot.

Dan Brown is the latest big pulp writer to go bibliomystery: In his recent Inferno, totally panned by critics worldwide but with a four-million copy first- print run, Brown takes us through one of the greatest literary classics of all time, Dante’s La Divina Commedia—or rather the hellish Inferno part of the trilogy.

The genre is, as you might have surmised by now, highly artificial—the mysteries unravelled are over the top and generally completely improbable, but then again it is fiction about fiction, twice removed from life. The bibliomystery serves to bring the constructedness of the book within the book to the foreground—as it keeps reminding us about the fact that it is through what we are reading that we enter the realm of imagination and thrills—and that, indeed, is part of the genre’s fun.

Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru.

Also Read | Zac’s previous Lounge columns

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