I was excited when I found The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay in the library because it was supposed to be a literary mystery, and I enjoy books about books and book/author mysteries. Unfortunately, this book was not very good.
The ridiculously naive Rosemary leaves her Tasmanian home after her mother’s death and moves to New York. She stumbles across the Arcade, a unique bookstore, and recognizing it as a surrogate for home (her mother’s friend owns a small bookstore and Rosemary helped out in it), she manages to land a job there. The bookstore appears to have very little organization and is peopled with eccentrics. Walter Geist, the assistant manager, is an albino. The cashier is a transexual waiting for “her” operation to make her sex change official. The employee in charge of the art section likes to fondle himself while looking at nude pictures in the store. Rosemary, who apparently knows nothing about anything, falls in love with co-worker Oscar, who has no time for such a mundane thing as love. As if reading about the employees’ oddities wasn’t enough, a mystery about a purported lost manuscript by Herman Melville falls into Rosemary’s lap, entangling her, Oscar, and Walter in a quest to find it. Ultimately, tragedy prevails.
This book was NOT very good. First of all, I couldn’t believe Rosemary’s gullibility. Her innocence was too much. Yes, she lived an isolated life in Tasmania, but for a supposed bookworm, she knows nothing about reality and the cruelty of man to his fellow man. What kind of books was she reading? I almost said fairy tales, but fairy tales can be grim. I think the book was supposed to be set in the present, yet it had a much older vibe to it.
And I loved how easy it was to figure out what Melville’s lost manuscript could possibly be: hey, let’s go to the public library and read some of his letters to Hawthorne. Maybe they will contain a clue! And so a naive girl and a bookstore employee identify a lost manuscript from Melville’s letters that Melville scholars had somehow managed to overlook. One explanation for how easy it was to solve the mystery is that the manuscript, The Isle of the Cross, actually existed but truly was lost after Melville’s publisher rejected. That helps a bit, but gee, if only all literary mysteries were so easily solved!
Nothing in the book felt real. The characters seem too contrived and too eccentric. The only character I felt sorry for was Walter Geist, the albino. I guess he had to be an albino because it’s a Melville mystery and Rosemary reads Moby Dick? And Geist must be reviled and hunted like the whale? I agree with other reviews that said that Melville was the most well-drawn character in the book. Hay excerpted his letters, and he really came alive.
If you like literary mysteries, I recommend the following instead:
Possession: A Romance (Byatt)
The Club Dumas (Perez-Reverte) or see the movie adaption with Johnny Depp: The Ninth Gate
There are also about a million books (e.g. Interred with Their Bones, The Book of Air and Shadows) about various Shakespearean lost manuscripts or who really is Shakepeare, but none of them are very good in my opinion.