Do you want to live forever? Al-Idrisi, whose colorful resume included stints as the librarian of Baghdad and royal geographer to King Roger II of Sicily in the twelfth century, certainly did. He may have managed it, for a peculiar array of objects from his alchemical collection winds up in the hands of international smugglers, men determined to exploit the secret of al-Idrisi's long life. These objects, although there are no books among them, are all that remain of al-Idrisi's phenomenal library.
Paul Tomm, a journalist working on his first newspaper in a small Connecticut town, is assigned an obituary. All he has to do is write a paragraph or two about the life of the reclusive local college professor who died in an unsolved hit-and-run. However, when Paul's research reveals a history of jewel thefts, unexplained acts of violence, and maximum-security locks on the professor's office, he is quickly convinced that the dead man was a more dangerous and complicated figure than he appeared.
THE GEOGRAPHER'S LIBRARY alternates chapters concerned with Paul's investigation with chapters detailing the objects from al-Idrisi's collection, objects that have somehow found their way into the hands of the dead professor. Along the way, Paul meets a cast of characters, each with his or her own agenda. Who can he trust? There's his old professor who seems to show up with suspiciously accurate information at just the right time. There are the regulars at the deceased's social club, all shadowy figures with exotic accents and violent tempers. And what about the dead man's neighbor, an attractive high school music teacher who is less than honest about her relationship with the murdered man?
Alchemy, as the cabal in this book understands it, involves much more than the transformation of lead to gold; it concerns transformations of all types and applications. Wealth and immortality are just two of the rewards for those who learn alchemy's secrets, and the danger to Paul grows as he gets closer and closer to discovering the truth. Alchemy, it seems, does not protect against acts of violence and the body count gets higher than you might think in a book about immortals. That seems to be the lesson: human frailty is so inescapable that it always finds a way to circumvent immortality, and the few who are given such a gift still find ways to self-destruct.
Reviewed by Colleen Quinn on January 22, 2011
The Geographer's Library