So this week’s blog was supposed to be a little look into Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, but due to unscheduled busyness, I’m putting that back to next week. Instead I’m reviewing a conspiracy thriller novel I recently finished — Glenn Cooper’s Library of the Dead.
FULL SPOILERS AHEAD…
Will Piper is an FBI agent and serial killer specialist hoping for a quiet and undemanding run-up to his retirement. His plans go awry when he’s forced to take the case of New York City’s ‘Doomsday Killer’ and is utterly flummoxed. This killer has no pattern and defies psychological profiling, and the disparate victims have just one thing in common: each of them received a postcard foretelling their date of death.
Much of the story is told from Will’s perspective and set in the present day, initially playing out like a police procedural/murder mystery. However, the book soon takes us back in time to 1947. Something’s been found on the Isle of Wight in England and former Prime Minister Winston Churchill gets called in to deal with it. Shortly afterwards, an alleged UFO crashes in Roswell, New Mexico, and a top-secret military complex known as Area 51 is established in Nevada.
Later chapters take us back much further to Vectis (the future Isle of Wight) and Anglo-Saxon times. A mute and strange child is rejected by his father and gets taken in by the monks at Vectis Abbey. All this boy does is eat, sleep and speedily scribble names and dates. Nobody understands why, but the monks decide that he’s doing the Lord’s work and must be protected. Eventually he spawns descendants who do the same.
In the present day, the book also follows Mark Shackleton, an Area 51 employee and Will Piper’s ex-schoolmate. He’s a socially awkward loner who ends up stealing data from Area 51 for an unknown purpose.
What’s great about these plotlines is the way they intertwine. Glenn Cooper has crafted a Dan Brown-style story that’s part conspiracy thriller, part historical mystery, part supernatural fantasy. We eventually learn that the mute boy and his descendants have the power—somehow—to predict the date of death of every person who will ever live until a certain point in the mid 21st century. The Vectis Abbey monks keep the boys’ writings in a secret underground library beneath the abbey, and this library is what’s discovered by archaeologists on the Isle of Wight in 1947 and brought to Churchill’s attention. The Roswell UFO Incident is created as a diversion for getting the contents of the library over to Area 51 in Nevada. So, in effect, Roswell and Area 51’s associations with aliens and UFOs are just a smokescreen. The secret base actually conceals the dates on which we’re all going to kick the bucket.
This is an inventive twist on the Roswell and Area 51 conspiracy theories. It’s similar to what I’m doing with The Million Eyes Trilogy: taking real-life events, mysteries and conspiracy theories and working them into a fictional narrative (partly the reason why I was so eager to read this).
How all this entwines with the main present-day plot is equally as compelling. We learn that Mark Shackleton has stolen all the library’s data, and this leads us to the book’s biggest twist: there is no Doomsday Killer. Mark is sending the postcards because he knows when everyone’s going to die. His motives are rather fuzzy, but essentially he’s using the data to help a life insurance company commit an enormous fraud and is taking a cut of it.
This is excellent plotting. It doesn’t take too long for everything to play out, either. Admittedly some of the Vectis material is unnecessarily padded. We don’t really need to know about all the daily goings-on at the abbey, but we hear about them anyway, and they’re a bit of a slog to read at times. The present day chapters, on the other hand, are well paced and have a very distinctive and readable style. I suppose that’s the trick with this kind of part historical thriller—you’ve got to keep the historical scenes as readable and exciting as the present-day ones.
Still, once you start to understand how the mute scribblers relate to the Doomsday Killer, the Vectis chapters heat up. Cooper also throws a few shock plot turns into the Vectis chapters, including a rape scene and a horrific baby murder.
I actually wondered if we’d learned the truth about the Doomsday Killer, Vectis and the library too early. There was still a good chunk of the book left to go at this point, and I wasn’t sure where it was going to go next. But the scenes with the Area 51 operatives chasing Mark and trying to stop Will from uncovering the truth about the library are gripping — and Will turning the tables on them is nicely done. I guess knowing that Will, his partner and his daughter are not destined to die removes some of the tension, but it creates an interesting dynamic between Will and the conspirators hunting him.
The characters are well realised, but the book is short on females. I can’t recall any female POV characters and this is an all-too-common shame. Will’s partner Nancy Lipinski starts out promisingly but is afforded very little character development, and is eventually downgraded to the role of love interest for Will.
It also could’ve done with a slightly better edit. There are some clumsy grammar errors and a bit of head-hopping. In other words, Cooper occasionally jumps from one character’s POV to another without a line break, which is noticeable and a little jarring. (See my previous post about head-hopping and 3rd person POV.)
Still, none of this spoiled the book for me because it was brilliantly plotted and, for the most part, extremely well written. It also has a great Vectis-set shock ending.
One thing left hanging is the actual nature of the boy’s ability (which he subsequently passes to his descendants). It’s revealed that he’s the seventh son of a seventh son, born on the seventh day of the seventh month of the year 777 AD, and is therefore cursed/holds special powers according to folklore. (The book’s actually called Secret of the Seventh Son in the US.) This adds a mystical and supernatural element to the book, but it’s never explored or explained and there’s little focus on the curse itself. Instead the focus is on the effects of the curse, its implications for humankind, and the conspiracy to conceal it.
So I wouldn’t therefore call this book sci-fi or fantasy. However, Library of the Dead is the first in a trilogy, so I’m interested to see whether the sequels proceed deeper into sci-fi territory by exploring the curse and its origins in more detail…
Next week: the disappearance of Amelia Earhart