Alexander Short works in the New York Public Library's Center for Scholars and Writers as a reference specialist, spending his days amid call slips and idiosyncratic librarians. When he receives an elegantly penned query for a book titled Secret Compartments in Eighteenth-Century Furniture, Short becomes embroiled in a search for a priceless watch that gradually consumes his professional and personal life. The Grand Complication, Allen Kurzweil's second novel, takes this premise and spins an intelligent mystery spanning two centuries.
Henry James Jesson III, a middle-aged, wealthy, enigmatic collector, enlists Short to help track the Grand Complication, an antique watch that would complete one of his collections. Jesson is a genuine eccentric who lives alone (save for a butler) in a cloistered Manhattan house, speaks in archaic, erudite diction, and remains egregiously ignorant of all things modern. Short rigorously researches the history of the Grand Complication, from its creation by a Swiss inventor to its theft from a Jerusalem museum. Meanwhile, Jesson manipulates him by withholding information, Short's wife throws him out of their apartment for his growing obsession with the watch, and the young librarian navigates the treacherous water of library politics in an effort to keep his job and locate the fantastic timepiece. Kurzweil balances the dialogue deftly, alternating between Jesson's antiquated, high culture pronouncements and the younger Short's more colloquial speech; their contrasting voices nicely demonstrate the divide between the two protagonists, a gulf that becomes increasingly demarcated as the story progresses. The library itself serves as mute third protagonist. Kurzweil sets much of the novel there, and he continually drops wonderfully eclectic nuggets of information into our laps regarding the Dewey Decimal System, book binding practices and conservation techniques. The library's staff, including stuffy mandarins and autodidactic janitors, flesh out the story. Indeed, Kurzweil delights in using these secondary characters as colorful backdrops to the plot.
A charming energy floods the novel, and Kurzweil neatly pulls off the author's trick of entertaining even as he educates.
Michael Paulson teaches English in Baltimore.