Cloak and dagger and a #2 pencil

Another spine-tingling novel about librarians

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If the publishing industry is any guide (and, of course, it's not), expect to see a new line of librarian action figures under the tree this Christmas. Kids will clamor for Marian(TM), armed with her stubby, eraserless pencil. She vanquishes foes with a single "Shhhh."

For the second time this year, the dusty souls who read newspaper book sections are being rewarded with a high-adventure novel about an intrepid librarian. (You heard it here first: Tom Cruise will star in a new thriller called "Mission Impossible: 312.594.232.")

In March, Ross King published "Ex-Libris," a wildly complex novel about a 17th-century bookworm risking his life to find a missing text.

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Now, Allen Kurzweil has set a rollicking, witty suspense tale in the New York Public Library. The hero of "The Grand Complication" is a strange reference librarian named Alexander Short, a comic hybrid of Sigmund Freud and Edgar Allan Poe.

By profession and temperament, he's a compulsive cataloger. He always wears a little notebook "girdled" to his waist for making lists of everything around him in secret code. When he's feeling anxious, he retreats to a small cage in his apartment to organize his ever-growing collection of call slips.

This behavior hardly sets him apart from the other weird shelvers, restorers, researchers, and petty dictators who keep New York's great repository running smoothly, despite their comically bizarre conflicts. (There's an acrimonious battle over proper use of cellophane tape.) With this novel, Kurzweil has so much fun in the library that he's sure to lose his checkout privileges.

Alexander's adventure begins when a gracious old man asks him to find a book called "Secret Compartments in Eighteenth-Century Furniture." For Alexander, it's an irresistible encounter. He, too, has an interest in secret compartments. He's entranced by the old man's handwriting, "executed with confident ascenders and tapering exit strokes." And he's captivated by the man's "improbably literary name: Henry James Jesson III."

With his typically arched tone, Alexander notes that "in the vocabulary of the library cataloger, Jesson was infuriatingly N.E.C. (Not Elsewhere Classified)." But the old man has no trouble enticing Alexander to his town house filled with antiques and odd contraptions. He rejects modern conveniences like phones, television, fluorescent lights, and any cheese wrapped in plastic.

At the center of Jesson's collection is a wooden cabinet subdivided into 10 compartments. (Alexander immediately notes, "Dewey created a method by which the whole universe could be enclosed in ten distinct classes.") The contents include a fingertip, a jar of murky liquid, a withered vegetable, and an old doll. Alexander learns that "each item preserved in the case marked a singular moment in the life of an anonymous 18th-century inventor."

But one of the compartments is empty. Alexander's assignment, should he wish to accept it, is to find the missing object and complete the cabinet collection. In less time than it takes to open the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, Alexander is spying, disguising, and stealing his way toward the Grand Complication, the world's most complicated watch, a Breguet made for Marie Antoinette. (The watch's existence and its theft in 1983 are details drawn from history.)

As Alexander confesses, people are "a resource my profession sometimes neglects." And no one feels the brunt of that neglect harder than his frustrated French wife, Nic, a maker of erotic pop-up books. Though Alexander is driven by "abecedarian lust," he has little interest in marital relations. As she alternately complains and entices, he's revolted by "Nic's relentless subversion of order."

"Irritation kicked in again when I saw the sink," he writes. "It was so filled with dishes it resembled a library book drop at the end of a long weekend. And the recyclables! Their consolidation showed a total disregard for the nuances of plastic."

As conflicts at home and work reach a breaking point, Alexander begins to realize that he can't judge Mr. Jesson by his cover. In the tradition of "Sleuth," the story winds back on itself ingeniously. The labyrinthine world of library research was never this entertaining in college.

The publisher had fun with this book, too. Theia, a new imprint from Hyperion, has cleverly accommodated Kurzweil's imagination by allowing the vocabularies of clock- and bookmaking to overlap. There are 60 chapters; the story comes full circle in exactly 360 pages; and the breaks are marked by a little watch gear that slowly rotates. Silly and smart, this is a book to make time for.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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