For an antiquarian book dealer, the ultimate discovery - the holy grail - would be a book which would change literary history. Has that very thing come into the hands of Peter Byerly? Even he, expert that he is, is not sure but he's determined to find out.
Charlie Lovett's The Bookman's Tale is a mystery with a literary theme. It's a pacy 'thriller', a love story, and a book packed not only with fascinating detail but also full of passion for its subject. It's just the thing for a booklover or anyone interested in the highways and byeways of the history of books and literature, particularly in the Shakespearean age, but it doesn't take itself too seriously and it's a lot of fun.
The story begins in Hay-on-Wye in 1995. Peter is a young widower, an American who has returned to his Oxfordshire cottage to try to pick up the strands of his life after the sudden death of his wife Amanda. He's browsing through an 18th. century analysis of literary forgeries when out falls a picture, a Victorian watercolour, a portrait - apparently - of Amanda. Naturally Peter cannot rest until he discovers the identity of artist and subject and why the latter so closely resembles his wife, and in doing so he follows a trail which both puts him in great danger and leads to more than he'd ever expected.
The narrative is an intricate one, moving from 1995 to Peter's earlier life with Amanda, back to Southwark in 1592, and on to the Victorian era. The story is thus pieced together from many carefully placed clues and disparate sources, and Peter's own detective work - for it's not just a portrait whose provenance he's ultimately concerned with - is aided by his bibliophily and knowledge of book restoration, and the experts with whom he has links. In a novel such as this there are bound to be moments when the pieces of the puzzle fall all too neatly into place, and the drama occasionally gets a little out of hand, but it's none the worse for that, and as an escapist treat on a literary theme it's a jolly good read.
One facet which interested me particularly was its many references to people such as Robert Cotton, the great collector who owned and preserved treasures including Beowulf and the Lindisfarne Gospels (read about his library here), and in much more recent times, W.H. Smith, a man who did more than 'just' sell books and who had strong views on the subject of Shakespeare authorship. But if you fancy a bit of a romp about the English countryside in a story which incorporates family feuds, murder and mayhem, and a lot - a lovely lot - about books, this is for you!