THE LAST BOOK
reviewed by M. A. Orthofer
The Last Book is narrated by Inspector Dejan Lukić, and begins with him being called to the Papyrus Bookstore, where a customer has passed away. The death doesn’t look suspicious—the man was sitting in an armchair, and seems to have simply died of natural causes—but it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that: as the doctor who then does the autopsy explains, there was no obvious cause of death.
A single case of a death without ascertainable cause is one thing, but when the bodies start piling up Lukić has to believe there’s something behind it, a common denominator. And, given the bookstore locale—that’s where the first three deaths occur—and with an inspector who studied and got his degree in literature, it’s no surprise that everything points to a bookish, literary explanation. A poisoned book each of the victims handled, possibly?
Lukić continues following leads (and bodies) as best he can—and also begins a relationship with Vera, one of the owners of the bookstore. The case also eventually attracts the attention of the National Security Agency, and its Commissioner Milenković, who have their own secretive way of doing things—which includes some very tight surveillance, of both the bookstore and Inspector Lukić.
Soon enough, it’s semi-clear what’s behind these events—the ‘last book’. A book that many people seem to want to get their hands on—and that appears to have fatal properties if (mis)handled. It is clearly dangerous—possibly very much so: “Everything is in danger. The whole world.”
Živković orchestrates some nice scenes with and around the mystery-book, especially in the bookstore, where it is mis- and re-placed, including in one elaborate crowd-scene. He also has Lukić troubled by some vivid dreams (inevitably after sleeping with Vera, in what becomes a running joke of theirs, of sorts)—and has Lukić repeatedly get a sense not of déjà vu but of déjà lu (appropriately enough, in this bookish story).
For the most part The Last Book plods along amiably and simply enough, though with a sinister group apparently intent on finding—and somehow using—the book, and the almost equally sinister National Security Agency lurking in every background it certainly grows into a more ominous investigation. The resolution shouldn’t surprise readers familiar with Živković’s work, but even those that are should find the anything but typical thriller-denouement a nice twist.
The nature of the ending also prevents me from saying much more about why this is such a satisfying novel—to explain even what appeals about it undermines the satisfaction. On the one hand, it’s a quiet, almost subdued conclusion (especially considering this is a thriller about a book with the potential to destroy the world). Quiet, and yet…
To say too much—or almost anything—about it also threatens to build it up too much, which does the conclusion and the book a disservice too. Let’s just say: Živković knows what he’s doing, and he does it well here.
THE GRAND MANUSCRIPT
reviewed by M. A. Orthofer
The Grand Manuscript begins quite a while after Inspector Dejan Lukić (re)solved the case of The Last Book. While things appear not to have worked out between him and Vera, the former owner of the Papyrus Bookstore (which she closed and which is now a cosmetics chain store branch)—she seems to be out of the picture—his interest in literature is undiminished—and in The Grand Manuscript he is again drawn into a very bookish case.
It begins with him being called to a writer’s apartment by her desperate literary agent, who fears the worst. She hasn’t heard from the writer in a few days, and there’s an important deadline looming. At the writer’s apartment they find the door locked—from the inside—but no one answering. Eventually making his way in, Lukić inexplicably finds no trace of the author—a classic locked-door mystery. But without evidence of any actual crime, there’s not much he can do.
Something fishy is, however, clearly going on. The author, Jelena Jakovljević, was working on a novel apparently titled Find Me (which is also the Serbian title of The Grand Manuscript), and the agent isn’t the only one desperate to get her hands on the manuscript. Like the ‘last book’, it’s a very special book, holding potentially great promise to whoever can get to it first.
There are quite a few mysteries, beginning with the elusive Jelena Jakovljević. Lukić is not familiar with her work, because she just writes popular detective novels (and though an avid reader, his tastes are more discerning…), but she’s very successful. As to her identity, that’s more complicated—with the fact that ‘Jelena Jakovljević’ is a pseudonym just the first of quite a few twists to that.
While Lukić doesn’t find any trace of her or her manuscript, he does pick up a cellphone at her apartment—and reads the message: “Find me” on it. The telephone proves of interest to Commissioner Milenković of the National Security Agency, too, because it seems to work untraceably, without SMS card or battery. (A second, similar one comes into play, too, with poor Inspector Lukić eventually going around with four phones on him.)
And then there’s the blind painter living next door to Jakovljević, who has very sharp hearing, and a dog…
As in The Last Book, there’s a (different) mysterious tea shop nearby that Lukić repeatedly visits. Beyond that, there are quite a few other mysterious circumstances, too—like the number of stairs he goes up and down inexplicably changing. It’s no wonder that Commissioner Milenković finally has to ask:
“Is this another case like that?”
“Like the ‘Last Book’?”
It’s not surprising to find that it is. Živković does take a somewhat different tack, but can’t get around the fact that the denouement—even with a few twists to it—can’t have quite the same impact as it did the first time around. (And while it is not essential to read The Last Book before The Grand Manuscript, it certainly helps, and makes sense to.)
The hunt for the mysterious ‘Grand Manuscript’, the mysterious cellphone communications, and Lukić’s methodological investigation, where has to take into account at every step that he’s being closely monitored by Commissioner Milenković, is reasonably exciting, and the wrap-up sufficiently satisfying—but it doesn’t pack nearly the punch that The Last Book did.
Still, the literary angle, in particular, is amusing, for those who like that kind of thing, from Lukić unfamiliarity with the works of the missing writer to her agent’s complaints:
Forget the idealized notions you have about writers. They’re all sadists who take particular pleasure in torturing their poor agents.
Appearances—and their absence (such the pseudonymous missing author)—are nicely constantly deceiving here, making for an enjoyable enough read.
THE COMPENDIUM OF THE DEAD
reviewed by M. A. Orthofer
Inspector Dejan Lukić is on the case again, eight months after the conclusion of The Grand Manuscript—and of course it has to do with (mysterious) books.
“Why did everyone on the police force immediately think of me the minute anybody mentioned books?” he complains—but he does get some interesting cases. His reputation precedes him, and he is called to the scenes of two… crimes, of sorts. The people calling him are certainly all up in arms, but the actual crimes seem bizarre rather than actually damaging. First there’s the City Cemeteries Administration, where someone seems to have snuck in and… moved some seven volumes of their files. Not stolen them, just moved them. Next there’s the National Library, where they similarly inexplicably find a second copy of what is known to be a unique book.
There’s more, too: at each location there’s an envelope addressed to him, with a book inside. A massive yet entirely blank book. Eventually there’s a third—found by a poet who has his own unusual story, and a large collection of one of his own books (specifically, of one of his own books…).
Meanwhile, Vera—whom Lukić has been happily reunited with, after she was absent for much of The Grand Manuscript—has received an incredibly generous offer for the inventory from her old Papyrus bookstore, which she has held onto. The offer, however, demands an almost immediate decision—and there’s more mystery around it too, as, for example, the buyers don’t identify themselves. It is however such a large sum that it’s essentially too good to pass up.
There are some very mysterious occurrences here—including locked rooms, slightly warped realities, and people going missing. But whereas in the two previous installments of the trilogy Lukić soon had to deal with murder victims, here there are only unexplained absences, and while he fears for the worst there’s a chance that people aren’t getting killed. As readers will recall from The Grand Manuscript, Vera’s ambition was to write a detective story without murder—but is such a thing possible? And if it is, will it be hopelessly boring for readers used to death being at the center of their mysteries?
The three unusual volumes Lukić has received are apparently from a set of four—and the complete set then functions as The Compendium of the Dead, a very complete listing. Just as the ‘Last Book’ and the ‘Grand Manuscript’ of the previous two Lukić-adventures had great powers, so too does this one. And while someone obviously wants Lukić to have this compendium, there are others forces in play as well: his old nemeses, the members of the secret organization that has gone after the previous books too, as well as the National Security Agency, which has been keeping tabs on Lukić but promise to be more helpful this time around.
This third variation on powerful books (and the power behind them) allows Živković’s to bring the trilogy almost full-circle, and tie up some loose ends in setting everything right—the havoc that a writer wreaks put back in order. It’s a decent, clever idea, and certainly makes for an agreeable conclusion, even if the path there can feel a bit forced, as it is quite apparent where all this is heading. Yet even if the outcome doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, Živković leads the reader there through some enjoyable and creative adventures. He’s particularly good on-scene here—the Cemeteries Administration, the National Library—and there are some nice side-stories, such as that of the poet collecting his own book (another strong on-scene set of scenes).
Compendium of the Dead is emphatically the concluding volume of this trilogy, and stands least comfortably on its own. With it, however, The Papyrus Trilogy forms a nicely rounded whole.