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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, February 3, 2002

Romantic 18th-Century Settings Enhance Recent Books

It is easy to understand why we like to read romantic novels and watch films such as Pride and Prejudice that are set in the eighteenth century. Their world seems more orderly than ours and filled with more grace and proportion.

Neighbors visit one another daily and frequently get together for formal dances with complicated steps. They are driven home in horse-drawn carriages and coaches. The next day, when a friend comes to call, they take a turn in the formal garden discussing important personal issues in an elegant English owing much to the influence of the masters of the Latin language they studied in school.

The following books about life in the 18th century can be found at your public library, which, by the way, has books from all the centuries.

The Grand Complication by Allen Kurzweil (Hyperion, 2001).

The hero and detective of Kurzeil's second novel is Alexander Short, a reference librarian at the downtown branch of the New York Public Library. At the beginning of the tale, Short is a bundle of obsessions, recording the minutiae of his life in an obscure shorthand and emotionally estranged from his cute French artist wife.

Then he meets a patron in his library named Henry James Jesson, the man who—in his imagination-- lives in the 18th century. It turns out that Jesson is maniacally hunting for a famous pocket watch once owned by Marie Antoinette, and he enlists the librarian's help in finding it. Alexander is helped by his eccentric library co-workers, including an archivist of erotic literature and a library custodian who is an expert on the Dewey Decimal Classification System and who sleeps in the basement of the library.

By the end of the book, Alexander has matured into an actual human being. Kurzweil offers first class entertainment for the discriminating taste.

According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge (Carroll & Graf, 2001).

A delight from beginning to end, Bainbridge's latest novel features Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer and man of letters.

We know a lot about Johnson's life from author James Boswell's biography of him, but we don't know much about his last 15 years, spent often in the company of the wife of the brewer Henry Thrale—a woman known to us simply as Mrs. Thrale.

Bainbridge allows us to see Johnson among the Thrales from the vantage point of the eldest daughter, the precocious Queeney. Read this for her opinion of whether Johnson and her mother ever became romantically involved. But, most of all, read this to admire and laugh with Sam, a man with a big mind and an even bigger heart.

The House of Sight and Shadow by Nicholas Griffin (Villard, 2000).

Griffin has been called a modern-day Edgar Allan Poe, and his second novel lives up to the billing. He tells the story of the collaboration of Dr. Joseph Bendix and Sir Edmund Calcraft.

On the rebound from a failed love affair in Paris, Bendix soon finds himself robbing graves for Calcraft, who believes that the touch and blood of hanged thieves will cure all ills. Hidden away in Calcraft's house is his daughter Amelia, who is losing her sight and is loved and doctored by Bendix.

Along with Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, Bendix moves among the criminal crowd of early 18th-century England, which at that time was ruled by the master thief Jonathan Wild. A engrossing read for a midnight dreary.

Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House by Stephanie Barron (Bantam, 2001).

The author of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, makes her sixth posthumous appearance as an intrepid sleuth in Barron's series. This may surprise some of you who remember Austen as the retiring author who preferred the anonymity of Southampton to the fame of London.

In this tail, Jane gets involved in the seafaring life of her youngest brother, Frank, a post captain in the Royal Navy. She goes undercover in a prison hospital for French sailors to find out why one of Frank's best friends is being framed for the murder of a French captive.

Those who don't want to stop reading Jane Austen after finishing her half dozen masterpieces, can find solace in Barron's rediscovery of these "lost" diaries, written in an imitation of Austen's style.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.