The Island of Lost Maps: True story of cartographic crime

by Miles Harvey

Harvey, M. (2000). The island of lost maps: True story of cartographic crime. New York: Random House.

The Island of Lost Maps is a wonderful journey and exploration into cartographic history, library rare books librarians, and the deeds of one Gilbert Bland—notorious map thief.  Harvey takes us on a personal journey with him as he tracks down Bland and tries to reconstruct the actions of this “unremarkable” man who stole hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of dollars worth of rare maps from libraries across the country.

He had gotten into trouble with the law before, but was basically let off the hook if he agreed to join the army (during the Vietnam War), which he did. After Vietnam he went into business for himself but that was failing. Apparently Bland then stumbled upon the idea of going into rare book rooms and cutting valuable maps out of valuable rare books and then selling the maps to other map dealers or collectors.

This story is not just a recount of a criminal’s activities, but a personal journey of the author’s as he tracks down not just Bland but people in the field of cartography and associated with libraries, maps or FBI involved in the case. It is an eye opening book into the world of rare book rooms of libraries and the librarians who work there; into the world of map dealers and collectors; and into the history of maps and mapmaking itself.

A wonderful tour de force.

Bryant & May on the Loose: A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery by Christopher Fowler

Fowler, C. (2009). Bryant & May on the loose: A Peculiar Crimes Unit mystery. New York: Bantam Books.

What a wonderful novel. Christopher Fowles has come through again. This time the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) has been disbanded and kicked out of their office. Things look bleak until a member finds a dead body missing its head. Suddenly the PCU folks are back at it. Of course they have a makeshift office with no access to any police databases and are unpaid, but if they can pull it off they may be reinstated.

In addition to the body, someone is dressing as a stag and frightening folks in the Kings Cross area of London. There is a large government sponsored building project going on there to revitalize an area that is crime ridden and derelict. ADAPT has been working on the project for 13 years and has been buying people’s property to put in the new buildings. However, the architect in charge, Maddox, has realized he has overlooked one vital piece of property that could bring the whole project crashing down along with his career.

In 1940 during the blitz, the Porter’s house was destroyed (ll Camley ). The deed was hidden in the basement and just uncovered by one of the workers clearing the area for ADAPT. The worker is a good guy (T. Delaney) and wants to find the rightful owner. Maddox has a lunch meeting with Delaney to convince him to turn over the deed to ADAPT but Delaney is too smart. Unfortunately this means Maddox hires someone to burglarize Delaney and when Delaney surprises him, the villain (Mr. Fox) kills Delaney. Mr. Fox is hired by another person for a different burglary and this also results in a murder. Mr. Fox knows the person dressing as a stag to frighten off the ADAPT workers, so he dumps the bodies and removes the heads to try and incriminate Xander Toth (the stag man). It almost works out. But Mr. Fox wants to clean up all who know about his involvement (the folks who hired him) so there are two more murders.

Meanwhile the PCU folks are closing in. They finally put the pieces together and catch Mr. Fox, but at the last minute he kills someone helping the PCU regular staff (Liberty DuCain) and escapes. Now Bryant has made it his mission to find Mr. Fox … but we will have to wait for another book for that.

Part of the charm of the PCU books, is the delving into London’s hidden secrets. In Bryant & May on the Loose, we get history lessons about the Kings Cross, Battle Bridge area. This area has great historic significance as many famous wells and springs were found here, as well as pagan temples, one of which later became the location of the first Christian church. Fascinating stuff.

Best of John Bellairs 2: Johnny Dixon Mysteries by John Bellairs

Bellairs, J. (2005). The best of John Bellairs 2: The Johnny Dixson mysteries. New York: Dial Books.

This collection includes three Johnny Dixon mysteries: The Curse of the Blue Figurine 1983, The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt 1984, and The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull 1984. All feature young Johnny Dixon whose mother died of cancer and whose father has agreed to go on active duty again for the US Air Force during the Korean Conflict. This places the time period in the early 1950s. Johnny goes to live with his grandparents in Massachusetts and becomes friends with an old professor (Professor Childermas) who lives across the street.

In The Curse of the Blue Figurine, Johnny find a hidden Egyptian figurine with a curse put on it by a former priest –turned “evil” sorcerer. This mysterious creature meets Johnny and gets him to put on a ring which then gives the sorcerer control over Johnny.

In The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt Johnny goes away to scout camp but finds a secret path to a mansion which contains a hidden mysterious will. Along the way, Johnny annoys a powerful sorceress who is the relative of the deceased and does not want a will to be found. She controls a creature which has killed several other people and which she now aims at Johnny.

In The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull Johnny and the Professor go on a trip to see an old clock build by the Professor’s father. During the night bizarre things happen and in a semi dream state Johnny goes into the room with the clock and disturbs a miniature skull that was in a diorama in the clock. He puts this skull in his pocket where it allows evil forces to control him. After they return from the trip, the professor mysteriously vanishes. He has been kidnapped by the Ghost/ sorcerer of a man who had a grudge against one of the professor’s ancestors. Johnny, a friend Fergi, and the local parish priest go on an adventure to Vinalhaven, Maine to rescue the professor.

These are all fun stories but it is interesting to note that in Bellairs’ earlier works (Lewis Barnavelt mysteries) the witches and warlocks were good as well as bad. In the later books they seem to be leaning to the bad side. This is unfortunate as I prefer the older more balanced stories.

The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

The continued wanderings of a newly minted librarian

Caldwell, I. & Thomason, D. (2004). The rule of four. New York: Dial Press.

The Rule of Four is actually a quite entertaining novel if you can get over the misogyny and sexism of some of the characters. The plot and antics remind me of and Umberto Eco or Dan Brown book, but with childish, frat boy type characters.

The action takes place at Princeton and involves four students who unexpectedly became good friends. Gil is the wealthy banker’s son who just oozes authority and, of course, becomes president of Ivy (Princeton’s most exclusive eating club). Charlie has come from a poor family in Philadelphia where he ran with volunteer ambulances in the worst neighborhoods and is looking to go to medical school. Paul is a brilliant orphan who has been fascinated with obscure books. Tom is the narrator and has followed in his father’s path to Princeton.

Tom’s father was killed in a car accident when Tom was a teenager. His dad was obsessed with an obscure book called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. This book becomes the connection between Tom and Paul as Paul has read Tom’s Father’s book on the subject. Paul ends up doing his thesis on the Hypnerotomachia and is assisted by Vincent Taft (professor who knew Tom’s father and was also obsessed with the book), Bill Stein (graduate student of Taft’s), and Richard Curry (old Princeton friend of Tom’s father who was also obsessed with the book).

The Hypnerotomachia was, at first glance, a novel about a man looking for love in a dream. However, as Paul proves, there are hidden codes (ala Dan Brown) throughout the book. If one can solve the riddles left by the mysterious author and then apply some basic cryptography techniques, the truth of the book is revealed.

The author, Francesco Colonna, wrote the book as a hidden clue to find his crypt in which he stored an amazing treasure. The premise is that in the late 1400s a priest, Girolamo Savonarola, was getting the citizens of Florence to gather up any sinful objects including pagan or anti Christian items and burn them on at the Shrove Tuesday festival (bonfire of the vanities). The famous burning is February 7, 1497.  Many things were gathered including cards, dice, paintings, cosmetics, books, etc. Enormous amounts of priceless artwork and books of knowledge were lost. Colonna was afraid that all knowledge would be lost just when Europe had crept out of the dark ages. He made it his goal to collect all the works he could and preserve them in a hidden, waterproof, crypt where they could not be destroyed. He then left his book to lead only the people who would value such things to find his crypt.

This part of the story line is excellent and the ending is quite a surprising one. At first, I admit, I did not like the way the ending was going (sorry, you have to read the book), but then it got back on the course I would have preferred and in the end, I was quite happy I found this wonderful story.

Fen Country by Edmund Crispin

The continued wanderings of a newly minted librarian

 

Crispin, E. (1979). Fen Country:Twenty-six stories. New York: Walker and Company.

 

This collection of short stories was published after Crispin’s death. The majority of the stories involve Crispin’s hero, amateur detective Gervase Fen. Most of the stories are “locked room” mysteries which are solved by Fen or another detective. A few of the stories are ones of murderers getting away with it or with would be assassins missing their mark but without police involvement.

Fen Country is a quick and entertaining read and is a nice ending to the series of novels Crispin has contributed to bookshelves. Highly enjoyable.

Love Lies Bleeding by Edmund Crispin

The continued wandering of a newly minted librarian

 

Crispin, E. (1948). Love lies bleeding. New York: Walker and Company.

Love Lies Bleeding is one of Crispin’s earlier works. It is not quite as hilarious as Glimpses of the Moon, but still has a good bit of humor. This mystery takes place at a boys’ public school (Castrevenford School), and features a missing schoolgirl from the neighboring girls’ school, two murdered school masters, a murdered old woman, stolen acid from the chemistry lab, a stolen gun, and an old, homicidal bloodhound who saves the day while ultimately sacrificing himself.

The two murdered school masters are a mystery because of no apparent motive until it comes to light that a local old woman may have found buried in her Elizabethan cottage some letters, an old miniature painting, and a manuscript of Shakespeare’s lost play Love’s Labour’s Won. This then proves to be the motive for the killings. One school master was going to buy the manuscript (worth millions) from the unsuspecting woman for a mere 100 pounds! The other school master overheard this and said it was unfair fraud and he would do what he could to make sure she knew the real value of what she found.

So one school master murders the other but is then himself murdered by someone he told about the manuscript. The first master is also responsible for the chemistry theft and gun theft and for the disappearance and attempted murder of the girl. Another Castrevenford employee is the one who murdered the murderous school master and the old woman and also attempted to kill the school girl and our hero, Gervase Fen, who was of course solving the mystery. They were saved by the heroic dog, and all ended reasonably well. Unfortunately the Shakespearian letters were burned as was the majority of the manuscript except for one surviving page.

This is one of those “locked room” type of mysteries where all the clues are provided and the bodies pile up. It is solvable if only one asks the right questions and realizes that everything is interconnected.

Glimpses of the Moon by Edmund Crispin

The continued wanderings of a newly minted librarian

Crispin, E. (1977). The glimpses of the moon. New York: Walker and Company.

Glimpses of the Moon is the last of the Gervase Fen mysteries which Crispin authored.  It was written later in life (1977) before Crispin died (1978). This work takes place in the Devon countryside and features a great deal of humor in the Devon dialogue and in general. However, this humor is in stark contrast to the quick but gruesome descriptions of the mutilated bodies. The descriptions really aren’t that gruesome, but in contrast to the humor throughout the rest of the book they stand out all the more.

Gervase Fen is visiting the Devon countryside in which there have been two recent murders. One, a local man is found decapitated and the rest of his limbs hacked off and rearranged—another local man is arrested for the deed (but Fen isn’t sure if he is really guilty of the murder). The second is the mysterious death of a woman from a bridge (did she jump or was she pushed?). While Fen, the Major, and Padmore (a journalist trying to write a book on the first murder) discuss ideas and attend the local country fete, another murder/ decapitation occurs.  Now Fen, the Major, Padmore, and the Rector (it happened at his fete) are trying to figure out what is going on while the police are going nuts trying to track down body parts (they lose the head of the second victim before he can be identified).

While the murders are being investigated, there is also a traveling con-artist who is posing as a utility company employee. He tries to steal a locked chest from the Rector but is blocked by a humorous traffic jam (3 hunt participants are blocked by the vehicle of some hunt protesters which in turn blocks a cattle drive and a motorcycle race and the police). 

In the end Fen, as usual, provides the answers (multiple murderers one of whom is a police officer, and one man who didn’t commit a murder, but did hack up a body). A thoroughly enjoyable entertainment.