The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber.
This book features a remarkably deft interweaving of three plots, with sympathetic, dimensional characters worthy of the plot's intricacies, and a marvelously playful narrative voice that shifts just enough when necessary to retain its ironic distance.
It begins with Jake Mishkin ("Jake" for the sake of the book's last line, but I'm not going to reveal the punch line to a 466 page joke here). Jake is a one-time Olympic weight lifter who looks it and has respectably maintained his massive strength. He is also wealthy. Very wealthy, which helps a lot with a peripatetic plot like this one. Jake is an intellectual property lawyer, a sex addict separated, but technically not divorced, from one of the world's saintliest--and wealthiest--women, with two tragically maladjusted children between them and a veritable psychomachia engaging the spirits of his ex-Nazi Mutti, ex because now a suicide, and his ex-gangland accountant Jewish Papa, now exiled to Tel Aviv but still very much the mob's boy.
We first meet Jake in the Adirondacks lakefront cabin of his best friend Micky Haas, who happens to be the world's premiere expert on Shakespeare, president of the MLA and full Prof. at Columbia U. Jake is typing the story we are reading on a laptop. He is if not the classic unreliable narrator, at least a close cousin. What he doesn't say, and later discovers he doesn't really know, reveals a great deal about him. We think we don't quite trust Jake, but we have no other choice.
This is what Jake sounds like:
"I kept her ashes in a tin can in my apartment [referring to Mutti] until I got my first job and then I bought her a slot in a community mausoleum at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, not too far from Albert Anastasia, Joey Gallo, and L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, so she's in good company. I believe I have forgiven her, although how does one really tell?"
Now, flash back about 350 years. Richard Bracegirdle, scion of the Warwickshire Ardens on his mother's side, has been mortally wounded fighting as a gunner on the roundhead side under Essex's command in a confrontation with the King's forces near Banbury at the Battle of Edgehill, 1642. He, too, is dictating his life's story. Jake and Bracegirdle, it turns out, have a great deal in common, even without the complications of their intertwined fates. The document he is producing, in Jacobean Secretary hand, becomes the axis of the plot. Chief among his dying reminiscences is the role he played in spying on one William Shakespeare, King's player and crypto-Catholic. Bracegirdle tricks Shakespeare into writing a play on the death of Mary Queen of Scots, thereby revealing his Catholic sympathies in an effort (at the behest of powerful Protestant lords) to ruin him and discredit his patrons. The full reasons for, and complexity of, this subplot I will not reveal here, but they are ingenious. Bracegirdle, a poor boy but gifted mathematician, invents a cipher to facilitate his espionage activities--a cipher so good it is nearly unbreakable. Let it suffice to say that the cipher reveals the location of Shakespeare's Mary play, for reasons I won't spoil by revealing.
Bracegirdle sounds like this:
"Well Nan I am killed as you fortolde & I bid you have a care with youre foretellinges lest they take you up for a witch, for I am shot threw the tripes with a balle it is lodged in my spine or so saith the chiurgeon here..."
Not so tedious as reading contemporary documents, but a close enough imitation to add color.
Add to these two plots a third, narrated by an omniscient, but discreet, narrator focusing on Albert Crosetti, aspiring film student, techno-drudge for a rare book dealer, and hopeless romantic who falls for the book dealer's assistant Carolyn Rolly who looms large and mysterious throughout. It is Rolly, and more particularly Crosetti, who discover the Bracegirdle mss. within the covers of some fire damaged volumes--its a long story and very much worth reading--that set all three plots boiling.
Now, add to these plots the spice that make this book masterly: A disgraced Shakespeare expert named Andrew Bulstrode, hoping beyond despair to claw his way back into scholarly good repute after authenticating a shocking forgery; a Russian gangster, Shavnov who develops a very unhealthy (for others) interest in Shakespeare mss., and wreaks havoc through his goons; Jake's siblings Paul, a former hood, ex-con and now Jesuit priest, and sister Miri, a very high class tramp. Add pinches of Carolyn Rolly's abusive ex; some abandoned children; Jake's SS Nazi grandfather's ghost; his too-good-to-be-real wife Amalie, who is also too-rich-to-be-true; Crosetti's Irish rose mother and sisters; the ghost of Crosetti's cop-father (not literally, but you'll see what I mean); Klim, a former Polish spy now hearse driver and crack cryptologist; Jake's obsessive-compulsive son Niko; various masters, Lords and London lowlife and fellow travellers clinging to Bracegirdle and Shakespeare; the flotsam of Academe and Manhattan legal life, and much more. Add again this mixture Manhattan lofts, Queens bungalows, mountain cabins, English castles, a Russian gym, various chartered jet flights. Now stir, stir, stir.
And Michael Gruber does, brilliantly. This is the most interesting and intellectually satisfying "thriller" I have read in a very long time. The characters have a depth and reality that lifts them off the page. The situations are realistically understated, with the right ironic distance that avoids the moralizing sentimentality so characteristic of the "thriller" genre. Even the bit players are well realized. There are no cardboard characters in this small masterpiece of pop art.
As the tripartite plot unfolds you will be struck by how deftly Gruber manages the complexity of its movements. He slips slickly from first person narrative rendered through Jake to Bracegirdle's English ethos, to the slightly distanced third person narrative focused on Crosetti. The core of the book revolves around the Bracegirdle cipher and the existence of the hidden Shakespeare play. Both of which are handled well. Detective novels that depend on cryptograms are generally superficially over elaborate and ultimately inane. Even the great Dorothy L. Sayers could not manage it in The Nine Tailors, but Gruber makes fine use of the device here. I must also say that while many authors have believed that a "lost" Shakespeare play is a great plot driver, I have never known it to actually work as it works here because in the end it is not essential to the book's interest. Not, in other words, a trite plot device. The book has more to do with Jake Mishkin's self understanding, Albert Crosetti's emergence from adolescence, and a vindication of Bracegirdle's true trust than it does about lost manuscripts of cryptograms.
In the end, it is good characters, not tricky plots, that make for good books, whether they are "literate thrillers" or not. The emotional depth of each set of characters in this book is appropriate and portrayed in a manner with which we can engage, appreciate their frailties, and care about their fates. They gain a surprising reality: the mark of really good fiction. Because of this, The Book of Air and Shadows is a marvelously entertaining and satisfying book.