Mystery Books for Sale

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by William Martin
Warner Books, November 2003
576 pages
ISBN: 0446530840

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Many universities spend the equivalent of the gross national debt of Peru on publicity. But the powers that be at Harvard will be congratulating themselves on the best bit of free PR they could ever want, thanks to William Martin's new book.

HARVARD YARD splices together the history of one of the United States' most famous colleges with a modern-day tale of bookseller Peter Fallon trying to track down the undiscovered Shakespeare play Love's Labour's Won. Fallon, a Harvard old boy, soon finds he's not the only person interested in the priceless manuscript which may be hidden in the university.

Martin is a relaxed and fluent storyteller, but the book never quite takes off. For one thing it's hamstrung by the inflexible structure -- one chapter in the present, the next tracking one family's story and the growth of Harvard through from the 17th century. The flashback chapters are considerably stronger, mainly because Martin runs with some of the Wedge family characters and also slots in some neat cameos. The contemporary sections are really rather flat and throwaway, and never develop the necessary tension for us to believe Fallon -- a sketchy character himself -- is ever in much danger. And if you're looking for a crime novel that captures the antiquarian book trade, you should run, not walk, over to Marianne Macdonald's Dido Hoare series.

As for HARVARD YARD, you will develop incredibly nimble fingers as you continually page back to the most vital part of the book -- the Wedge family tree. In the end, though, you may decide that Harvard itself is the most vivid character in the whole book. But to a UK reader, the class-ridden structure of both family and university is difficult to warm to. The irony is that most of the modern day characters donıt seem any more attractive. Martin -- a Harvard alumnus himself -- is in grave danger of coming across as a misty-eyed old boy who is reliving his college days through the rosiest of rose-coloured specs.

The Shakespearean angle is fun, but I did feel, after having slogged through 500+ pages, that the resolution is a cop-out and a distinct anti-climax. It's not quite up there with the ending that made me the most angry -- Ian McEwanıs AMSTERDAM had me ranting to anyone who would listen -- but I felt distinctly short-changed by the final few 'home in time for tea' pages of HARVARD YARD.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, November 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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