Much like bookstores themselves, novels about bookstores fall into a variety of genres. Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s “Shadow of the Wind” ventures into the realm of surreal conspiracies, while Christopher Morley’s “The Haunted Bookstore” is a charming comedy of errors. “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” contains secret societies and the mysterious effects of technology.
This is where Elizabeth Penney’s ‘Chapter and the Curse’ comes in, offering a murder mystery (as well as the perspective of several others – the cover of this novel indicates that it is the first in a series) located in and around a long-standing bookshop in Cambridge, England. Our narrator here is Molly Kimball, a librarian whose job in Vermont is about to end soon due to city budget cuts. Her mother, Nina, is recently widowed and much of Nina’s family lives an ocean away.
Nina’s Aunt Violet asks for their help in modernizing Thomas Marlowe – Manuscripts & Folios, the bookstore the family has run for hundreds of years. And so with little outfit in Vermont, mother and daughter venture across the Atlantic and settle in Cambridge. In an effort to raise the bookstore’s profile, the store owners host an event with famed poet Persephone Brightwell – who happens to be an old college friend of Violet’s.
Persephone isn’t Violet’s only friend to feature prominently in the plot; the array of former classmates also includes Peresphone’s editor, Ruth, and Violet’s friend, Myrtle. And if you think more than a few nasty secrets have surfaced in the decades since you first met these women, you’re right. Before too long, Molly finds Myrtle murdered outside Persephone’s event at the Thomas Marlowe Bookstore.
The questions of who killed Myrtle and why take up much of the book, but there are also subplots – including Molly’s flirtation with the owner of a local bike shop, Nina reconnecting with estranged members of his family and lingering questions about who should and shouldn’t control the bookstore. Add to that the way Myrtle’s death reveals some unsavory elements of her own life – including her conflicts with almost everyone in the supporting cast. Almost anyone but expat Americans could be considered a suspect, and Penney, who grew up in Readfield, Maine, and now lives in New Hampshire, does a great job creating plausible motives for those who are suspected. Penney is also the author of The Apron Shop mysteries, which take place in the fictional town of Blueberry Cove, Maine.
There’s a lot to love about “Chapter and Curse,” starting with its narrator. While Molly is an amateur detective at heart, the process by which she begins to investigate Myrtle’s death feels organic, and her skills as a librarian feel well-suited to her extracurricular activities. Much of the charm of this novel comes from the characters hanging out with each other, chatting about the shops they run or spending a night at the local pub.
The mystery of Myrtle’s death increases the level of tension, but it doesn’t increase the suspense to thrilling levels. Penney also makes the question of what happened during Myrtle and Persephone’s college days – when there was another mysterious death – relatively gripping. “Chapter and the Curse” features a multi-generational cast of characters, and one of the most interesting and subtle aspects of the book is how several characters’ decades-old regrets loom in the background, altering the dynamic of various interactions and sometimes curdle into something more ominous.
The novel offers more than a little insight into the inner workings of a bookstore, from holding events to knowing about evaluating and pricing used book collections. Yet fundamentally, a mystery like this succeeds or fails depending on how much the reader wants to spend time with the characters. In the case of “Chapter and Curse,” Penney created a cast and setting worth picking up on.
New York resident Tobias Carroll is the author of three books: “Political Sign”, “Reel” and “Transitory”. He has reviewed books for The New York Times, Bookforum, Star Tribune and elsewhere.
Bedside table: Two books, one soothing, one much less