Mystery Books for Sale

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by Elizabeth Hand
Mulholland, September 2020
352 pages
ISBN: 0316485934

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The fourth book featuring Cass Neary, a photographer and veteran of the punk scene, finds her arriving in London, missing the camera she impulsively ditched in Cornwall, wondering where her ex-con boyfriend has disappeared to, and jonesing for alcohol and amphetamines. As she wanders the streets, where Londoners are in shock after a terrorist attack on a tour group, she finds herself in a street lined with antiquarian and rare books. In a shop devoted to the occult, she bumps into a familiar man: Gryffon Hasselton, who series fans may recognize from GENERATION LOSS. He's a book dealer himself, and is bringing an extremely rare volume to a broker who, if the book turns out to be genuine, will arrange a sale to a wealthy software developer who plans to use its secrets in an app she's creating.

Hasselton convinces Cass to tag along to the broker's house, where an expert assessment is made: it is, indeed, the fabled Book of Lamps and Banners, a collection of spells and occult writings, some dating back to the ancient Greeks. Looking at a page in the book, Cass has a disturbing sensation. It seems to thrust her back into a traumatic moment of her past, and she nearly passes out.

The book not only has strange power, it's in high demand. As Cass and Gryffon step out of the room, someone kills the broker with a poison dart, shot through a window, and leaves a symbol etched on his forehead. They take the book and run, in a chaotic race to stay ahead of the software developer who believes it contains powerful code and white supremacists who build support through a popular website, folk music, and photography. They are violent men who want that power for their movement.

The plot, on its face, is absurd. Even Cass, in the opening pages, says it's like Dan Brown on acid. Added to that, the protagonist is so exuberantly self-destructive it may be difficult for some readers to stick with her. But Hand has such a way with language and insights about art that it's no wonder this series has won a cult following. Using the materials of contemporary culture the power of occult secrets, the rise of a conspiracy-theory-propelled racist movements, the destructive nature of apps that claim to be beneficial but affect people's minds and adding glimmers of the art of analogue photography, she creates something that's more than its parts, well worth the time of readers who are willing to temporarily suspend their expectations of the genre.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, September 2020

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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