Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 14 Oct 2018

The Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard

There are times when my internal reader just wants to put on his metaphorical cardigan and slippers, light the briar pipe, set a roaring coal fire and settle down with something so undemanding that it verges on the idiotic. It’s like taking a reading vacation while still reading – if you know what I mean. This is where what George Orwell described as ‘good bad books’ come into their own – they don’t stretch your intellect but they aren’t as insultingly brain-dead as Dan Brown’s tripe.

I’m not sure whether Mikkel Birkegaard’s The Library of Shadows, published in the UK in 2009, quite qualifies as a ‘good bad book’ because ultimately I think it’s more bad than good – but I’m rather getting ahead of myself and we’ll return to the issue of quality later. The book was, however, a best seller in its native Denmark and you wouldn’t be wrong to think it’s trying to play in the same territory as the very much superior 2001 blockbuster, Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. But where Zafon pulls off a compelling Gothic biblio-thriller, Birkegaard’s book starts promisingly enough but falls away, with its plot disappearing down an ever more unlikely rabbit hole, dragging its characters with it.

Given that it’s written as a mystery thriller, I’m not going to spend any extended time describing the detail of the plot because you’ll want to read the twists and turns for yourself. So to give you a sense of the kind of journey you’ll be embarking on,  it will be sufficient to give you just the most limited of an outline.

The elderly Luca Campelli owns an antiquarian bookshop in Copenhagen called Libri di Luca. He is widowed and has an estranged son, Jon, a lawyer who has had nothing to do with the world of books. Returning from a trip abroad, Luca dies in his shop under mysterious circumstances and Jon is unwillingly dragged into the life of the bookshop and the collection of rather unusual characters who work there or frequently visit. Before long he discovers that the shop has a secret – it’s the location for meetings attended by a group of people who believe they have enhanced reading powers. These are people who can influence others either by the way they read or by the way they can intensify and embroider the reading experience for others when they are in close proximity. These people are known as Lectors and the two tribes – the listeners and the readers – are constantly at loggerheads.

Jon, it transpires has his own unusual powers when it comes to books and soon he’s embroiled with a sinister group who want to use their Lector powers to covertly run the world. Will Jon be seduced by power or will he reject the dark side?

So far, so barmy. The problem Birkegaard has is that having spent a fairly leisurely time setting up the storyline, the journey has been so sedate that he has to somehow inject some serious jeopardy into the story and then decide where the devil to take it. On both counts he rather runs into the buffers.

 The pace of the last third of the book picks up noticeably with the injection of a bit of murder, treachery and kidnapping but, truthfully, the increase in the pace isn’t matched by an increase in the sense of tension. But the real problem is the increasingly silly plot which sees a secret organisation plotting an almost Hammer Film-style ritual gathering in a library in Egypt as the baddie cackles over his victims and exploits the innocent powers of our hero. Suddenly the face of Dan Brown looms up out of the text where he has no right to be.

I know what you’re thinking. I started this review by saying I wanted a read that demanded nothing of me – and surely that’s what you got? True; but what I wanted was good trash not disappointing trash…….


Terry Potter

October 2018