Sunday, January 9, 2011

Carlisle, Kate. The Bibliophile Mysteries: Homicide in Hardcover, If Books Could Kill, and The Lies That Bind

Carlisle, Kate. Homicide in Hardcover (2009), If Books Could Kill (2010), and The Lies That Bind (2010). New York : Obsidian. [These are the first three volumes of the ongoing Bibliophile Mystery series by the same author.]

By Marieka Kaye

This review first appeared in The Bonefolder, Volume 7, 2011

 An exciting book conservator has joined our ranks, and her name is Brooklyn Wainwright. The paperback mystery author Kate Carlisle has developed Brooklyn’s fantastical adventures in a series of three books to date: Homicide in Hardcover (2009), If Books Could Kill (2010), and The Lies That Bind (2010), also known as A Bibliophile Mystery series. Many of us are already very familiar with the handful of wildly romanticized and over-the-top depictions of book conservators in fiction, such as Margot Harrington, who runs off to Florence to assist in flood recovery in The Sixteen Pleasures (1994) by Robert Hellenga, Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book (2008), which follows Hannah Heath’s wild adventures in the treatment of the Sarajevo Haggadah, and the unlucky-in-love Sara Gonzales, restorer of rare books and manuscripts at the Getty, in Yxta Maya Murray’s The Conquest (2002). Carlisle tops these fictional females through the adventurous Brooklyn, who was conceived in the balcony between acts of a Grateful Dead show and grew up on a hippie commune in the wine country of northern California. It is easy to criticize, but ultimately Carlisle’s depiction of our profession forces those of us who are book conservators in the real world to not take ourselves so seriously for just a little while. As a self-described book snob, I freely admit to losing myself in these books for the short amount of time it takes to read them.

The first and most entertaining book in the series, Homicide in Hardcover, sets the scene for a hilarious ride through the eyes of an author who knows very little about our profession, but just enough to throw in descriptions of treatments and a few light technical terms. All textblocks seem to be made of vellum and all adhesives appear to be “glue.” She gets one thing absolutely right when she highlights Peachey knives in the first and third books. In the third book Brooklyn wins a set of “cryogenic steel-bladed knives that were hand-honed to surgical precision and beautifully beveled to work with the thinnest calfskin” made by Jeff Peachey. Prior to placing her bid, she exclaims, “Peachey is a genius.” As I know many of us rely on his knives to make our leather paring a happier activity, I can only hope this boosts sales and introduces the masses to his beautiful knives.

Apparently Carlisle was a student at the San Francisco Center for the Book prior to writing her series, so we can take comfort in the fact that she has at least bound some books by hand. A quick look at Carlisle’s Facebook page reveals over 750 fans and enthusiastic comments such as, “I finished your book last week and I’m going to see if there are book binding classes where I live.” It’s fun to think that more people have been introduced to what we do, but I had to stop and wonder what non-bookbinders might make of the use of technical terms. Peachey knives, kettle stitches, endbands, and rounding are not in most people’s every day lexicon. Fortunately there is a glossary of some key terms (“Brooklyn’s Glossary”) added to the end of the third book to educate the reader, which was sorely lacking in the first installment.

The first book starts out with a side-splitting comparison of Brooklyn to a surgeon while introducing her training in the following way: “My teacher always told me that in order to save a patient you’d have to kill him first. Not the most child-friendly way of explaining his theory of book restoration to his eight-year-old apprentice, but it worked. I grew up determined to save them all.” The back cover also includes the following to whet our appetites: “Brooklyn Wainwright is a skilled surgeon. Sure, her patients might smell like mold and have spines made of leather, but no ailing book is going to die on her watch.” The story unfolds into the unfortunate murder of her mentor, Abraham Karastovsky, on the eve of a celebration for his latest book restoration at the Covington Library in San Francisco. If we could all be so lucky to have our work celebrated in a gala event! And on a side note, the Covington is a library that boasts an incredibly eclectic collection including twelve of Shakespeare’s folios on permanent display, Walt Whitman’s letters, one of the first Gutenberg Bibles, printed accounts of explorers from Christopher Columbus onwards, rare first editions of works by authors such as Mary Shelley and Agatha Christie, John Lennon’s drawings, Steven King’s rejection letters, Kurt Cobain’s diaries, and an “amazing” collection of vintage baseball cards.  The imagination that went into this collection is astounding! But I digress.

Important plot points crop up immediately, adding an interesting cast of characters that are carried through the three books. During the investigation of Abraham’s murder Brooklyn meets a mysterious and overwhelmingly handsome British security guard, Commander Derek Stone, who sticks with her throughout the series in a frustrating and drawn out saga of unrequited love and desire. His stunning looks are exceedingly emphasized, and Brooklyn is not shy about stating her lust through statements such as, “My stomach tingled and I could’ve smacked myself. Yes, okay, he was indeed gorgeous as honey-baked sin…” and “…Derek Stone exuded more animal magnetism than all those Bond men combined.” We are also quickly introduced to Brooklyn’s archenemy, Minka LaBoeuf, who tried to cut Brooklyn’s hand off with a sharp knife while they were classmates in a conservation program located in Texas. For those of us who know how stressful conservation programs can be, this relationship does not actually seem so far-fetched and is sure to be a source of entertainment for any program alumni. Moments before Abraham takes his last breath, he whispers a cryptic message and passes on a cursed copy of Goethe’s Faust for safekeeping. Brooklyn becomes the prime suspect in the murder when dashing Derek discovers her with Abraham’s dead body. She proceeds to get herself into trouble countless times playing amateur detective in the hopes of discovering the mystery behind the book and her beloved mentor’s murder.

Carlisle’s second volume, If Books Could Kill, brings Brooklyn to the “world-renowned” Edinburgh Book Fair where she looks forward to catching up with old friends and teaching some workshops. Her ex, Kyle McVee, shows up to the fair with a scandalous book that threatens to humiliate the British monarchy. While on a nighttime tour of the city, Brooklyn runs into Kyle’s dead body, once again causing her to be the prime suspect for murder. As it seems she can’t keep herself out of trouble once a murder has occurred, she uses her amateur sleuthing skills to find the true killer. Her skills as a detective are subpar, but Derek is always there to rescue her from ridiculous danger and near-death experiences. Brooklyn’s wacky New Age parents make multiple appearances and Robin Tully, her glamorous best friend from childhood, who has “…an uncanny ability to cause men to wander off sidewalks into oncoming traffic,” helps a bit too as another key character that we first met in Homicide in Hardcover. Minka’s character displays cartoon-villain intensity throughout this book, and is constantly getting in Brooklyn’s way. Admittedly, the characters become a little irritating in the second book, but the funny book restoration tidbits and bibliophilia kept me going to the end. If you’re a fan of Edinburgh, the city is lovingly documented.

The most recent book, The Lies That Bind (ranked #31 on the New York Times bestsellers list), returns the usual cast of characters and places Brooklyn back at home in San Francisco to teach a bookbinding class at Bay Area Book Arts (BABA). The BABA director, Layla Fontaine, is a horrible witch of a lady who “pitches fits and lords it over her subordinates.” The reader won’t be sad to see her go early in the story, when she is found murdered in her office, obviously discovered by our favorite dead body magnet, Brooklyn. The plot revolves around an edition of Oliver Twist that Brooklyn expertly restores and Layla deceptively plans to auction off as a first edition prior to her death. Upon the discovery of this murder, it has only been four weeks since the Edinburgh Book Fair, and Derek shows up unannounced to once again sweep Brooklyn off her feet and rescue her when she inevitably gets in big trouble. The storyline in this book focuses heavily on the brewing romance between Derek and Brooklyn, and I found myself getting highly annoyed that the consummation of their steamy relationship was thwarted at every turn by nosy neighbors and a collection of misadventures.

Mention of bookbinding is still scattered throughout. I had to laugh especially hard reading lines such as, “It was the night of my latest bookbinding class and I, Brooklyn Wainwright, Super Bookbinder, was like a kid on the first day of grammar school” and “Tonight, as my students completed their second journal book, I threw in a lesson on how to mix PVA glue with certain powders and pastes to achieve different textures and results. ‘The thinner the PVA,’ I explained, ‘the more useful it is for restoration work, patching delicate tears and securing frayed threads.’” While these fun lines can keep a book conservator reading for the laughs, I found myself guessing the murderer from the very start, obviously revealing a weak plotline. Carlisle attempts to build in a love triangle when another overwhelmingly attractive character, Gabriel, is reintroduced from earlier storylines. Unfortunately, there is a great lack of steaminess in this triangle. If I’m going to give my time to some entertaining paperback mysteries, I want to go all the way and not just experience the tease.

Ultimately, Carlisle gets a few things right in her series, such as giving Brooklyn an insatiable appetite: “Yes, I liked to eat. A lot. I wasn’t picky. I loved everything. Especially chocolate. And pizza. Oh, and red meat. I loved a good steak.” As much as I try to deny any similarities between this silly fictional character and myself, I share this passion for food and see it in almost all the conservators I know. Brooklyn’s work ethic and passion for her profession also shine through, and I couldn’t help but become endeared to her at the opening of the second book: “If my life were a book, I would have masking tape holding my hinges together. My pages would be loose, my edges tattered and my boards exposed, the front flyleaf torn and the leather mottled and moth-eaten. I’d have to take myself apart and put myself back together, as any good book restoration expert would do.” I highly recommend this series to any book conservator flexible enough to look beyond fluffy, sappy, and obvious plotlines and who enjoys encountering a cast of quirky characters and a heroine who just can’t keep herself out of trouble. If you need some stress relief from your hectic schedule, laughter is the best tonic. Pick up these books and the next thing you know a weekend has passed and your abs have gotten a good workout from all the giggling. And just maybe, you’ll have a renewed sense of how exciting and fun our profession is, with or without a murder along the way (hopefully without). It’s actually refreshing to see our profession romanticized, straying from the stuffy book nerd and librarian stereotypes that seem to haunt us. I’m actually looking forward to the fourth installment of “Brooklyn’s Bloody Bodies ‘R’ Us,” Murder Under Cover, coming out in May 2011.

Marieka Kaye is currently Exhibits Conservator at The Huntington Library, where she held the position of  Dibner Conservator for the History of Science since 2006. She received a Masters degree in Art Conservation from Buffalo State College and is currently working on her Masters of Library and Information Science through San Jose State University. Marieka began to work as a library preservation assistant at Brandeis University in 1998, while she was in her last year of undergraduate studies. This position resulted in a passion for the care of books and library materials. She went on to work as Library Preservation Assistant at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and Conservation Assistant for Exhibits and Loans at the New-York Historical Society. She also volunteered in the book lab at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and completed internships at the New York City Municipal Archives, Syracuse University, Etherington Conservation Services, and the University of California Los Angeles. She can be reached at <>

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