No one can accuse Martin Seay of lacking ambition. His first novel, The Mirror Thief, is a 600-page thrill ride across three centuries and two continents. But this is hardly a punishment for readers. It’s a workout, but of the intellectual kind: part crime thriller and part meditation on poetry, with unexpected plot twists and references to famous figures as diverse as the French dramatist Antonin Artaud and Jay Leno.
The action moves back and forth among three different parts of the world and three distinct eras. In 2003, on the eve of the second Gulf War, Curtis Stone, a 40-year-old African-American ex-Marine, arrives in Las Vegas from his Philadelphia home. A club owner named Damon has hired Curtis to search for gambler Stanley Glass, ostensibly to collect on a marker. Curtis has trouble locating the elusive Stanley, but he finds one of Stanley’s treasured possessions: a slender volume of poems, “The Mirror Thief,” written in 1958 by a proto-beatnik named Adrian Welles.
Cut to 1958, when Stanley, a 16-year-old card sharp fresh off the train from Staten Island, shows up in Malibu, California, in hope of meeting Welles. Stanley, who adores Welles’ poems, wants to talk about “The Mirror Thief” and its mysterious subject: a 16th-century alchemist named Crivano. The novel’s wildly ambitious third segment takes us to Venice in 1592, where a sultan has sent the murderous Crivano to “locate craftsmen adept at fashioning the flawless mirrors for which every civilized land celebrates the isle of Murano, and return with those craftsmen to the Ottoman court.”
The Mirror Thief is overstuffed with incident and period detail, but it’s still an impressive feat of imagination. Much of this book, Seay seems to be saying, is like one’s reflection in a mirror: What you see in front of you isn’t the whole story.