The Grand Complication: A Novel

The Grand Complication: A Novel

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by Allen Kurzweil

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"The account begins with Alexander's job in jeopardy and his marriage destined for the Discard shelf. Enter the improbably named Henry James Jesson III, a bibliophile who hires the librarian for some after-hours research. The task: to render whole an incomplete cabinet of wonders chronicling the life of a mysterious eighteenth-century inventor. As the investigation…  See more details below


"The account begins with Alexander's job in jeopardy and his marriage destined for the Discard shelf. Enter the improbably named Henry James Jesson III, a bibliophile who hires the librarian for some after-hours research. The task: to render whole an incomplete cabinet of wonders chronicling the life of a mysterious eighteenth-century inventor. As the investigation heats up, Alexander realizes there are many more secrets lurking in Jesson's cloistered world than those found inside his elegant Manhattan town house. With a notebook tethered to his jacket, Alexander plunges headlong into the search, only to discover that the void in the cabinet is rivaled by an emptiness in his heart."--BOOK JACKET.

Editorial Reviews

As welcoming and accessible as an Advent calendar, offering its prizes to anyone who cares to pry open the tabs.
Doris Lessing
An ingenious, erudite book . . . . Wonderfully irreverent.
A funny, entertaining mystery whose witty wordplay and fascinating detail will tickle any reader's brain.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
great fun and quite appealing.
A charming energy floods the novel, and Kurzweil neatly pulls off the author's trick of entertaining even as he educates.
USA Today
Wonderfully inventive.
Entertainment Weekly
A literate, cerebral thriller.
Boston Herald
Kurzweil's new book is a timepiece in more ways than one.
Christian Science Monitor
Silly and smart, this is a book to make time for.
People Magazine
Funny, entertaining . . . mystery whose witty wordplay and fascinating detail will tickle any reader's brain.
a wonderfully inventive novel.
New York Times Book Review
Engaging . . A hunt along the lines of The Maltese Falcon for an ancient and desirable object — but also the story of another sort of complication, love . . . a satisfying, multi-level tale.
Wall Street Journal
Graceful, elevated prose. . . . The author's touch is light and frequently funny.
Publishers Weekly
Using his highly acclaimed debut, A Case of Curiosities, as a springboard, Kurzweil delivers a remarkable novel a flawless blend of adventure, intellect, suspense, humor and antiquity. In the last novel, the case in question an 18th-century, glass-fronted box holding a collage of 10 objects had one empty compartment. In this work, set in modern-day New York City, a wealthy and eccentric bibliophile named Henry James Jesson III hires a witty, browbeaten employee of the New York Public Library, Alexander Short, to search for the missing object. Alexander, the sexually malfunctioning husband of a French artist who designs pop-up books, accepts the commission. Utilizing his exceptional research skills, he determines that the empty compartment once contained an 18th century timepiece made for Marie Antoinette. The watch, named "The Grand Complication" for its technical superiority, was stolen from a Jerusalem museum in 1983 and has been missing ever since. As the investigation deepens and Alexander becomes privy to the cloistered world of Jesson's elegant Manhattan townhouse, Alexander realizes that the elusive timepiece is not the only object under scrutiny. The robust cast of supporting characters includes a bawdy library director whose nickname is the "Librarian of Sexual Congress"; a Marie Antoinette groupie who once tried to steal the queen's pillow from an exhibit; and a no-nonsense businessman determined to open a museum devoted to all things obsolete. All come together with great finesse in this enchanting quest one that is sure to appeal to fans of Arturo Perez-Reverte and anyone who appreciates an intellectual romp. (Aug.) Forecast: Interest in anything Kurzweil produces shouldremain high, even this long after the success of A Case of Curiosities, which will receive a simultaneous paperback release. A national ad campaign and five-city author tour will help to fan the flames. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The search for an antique pocket watch animates a surprisingly dramatic battle of wits and wills, in an engaging intellectual thriller, only the second novel from the formidably gifted author of the 1992 critical success A Case of Curiosities. Narrator Alexander Short, a toiler in the reference department of the New York Public Library, finds his placid life interrupted one day by a dapper elder patron improbably named Henry James Jesson III. Jesson is an art collector and independent scholar with an agenda, for which he enlists Alexander's investigative skills: the recovery of an (initially unidentified) object missing from an elegant wooden cabinet (another "case of curiosities," as it happens) in his possession. Over the objections of his French wife "Nic" (who just barely registers as a presence in the story), Alexander is lured into Jesson's web, consulting such odd people and institutions as a cupiditous watchmaker, a "curator of Judaica," and a scholarly plutocrat's Arcade of Obsolescence-discovering that what he seeks is a timepiece created for Marie Antoinette (and named, coincidentally, "The Grand Complication"). The intricacies multiply exponentially, in a deliciously mazelike house of fiction containing innumerable trapdoors, hidden compartments, and mutually reflecting mirrors-and Kurzweil takes it to a whole new level when Alexander begins to suspect he is not just Boswell to Jesson's Johnson but, quite possibly, his employer's creation: the unwilling protagonist of a story Jesson is telling to himself. This exuberantly brainy tale is further distinguished by a plethora of quaint and curious lore (relating to heraldry, horology, French history, library science, andmiscellaneous arcana) and by suggestive echoes of both Oliver Twist and the Humbert-Quilty climactic confrontation in Lolita. And Kurzweil's ineffably witty dialogue reads like the rich, strange fruit of an inspired collaboration between Henry James and Oscar Wilde. Every bit as entertaining as it is sophisticated and elusive. Author tour

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Product Details

Hachette Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.75(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.25(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

THE SEARCH BEGAN with a library call slip and the gracious query of an elegant man.

    "I beg your pardon," said the man, bowing ever so slightly. "Might I steal a moment of your time?"

    He deposited his slip on the reference desk and turned it so that the lettering would face me. And if this unusual courtesy wasn't enough to attract attention, there was also the matter of his handwriting—a gorgeous old-fashioned script executed with confident ascenders and tapering exit strokes—as well as the title of the book he requested. Secret Compartments in Eighteenth-Century Furniture played right to my fascination with objects of enclosure.

    "Let's see what we can do for you, Mr.—"I double-checked the bottom of the slip before uttering his improbably literary name. "Henry James Jesson III."

    After I had directed him to the tube clerk, curiosity got the best of me, so I rang the stack supervisor and asked that she expedite retrieval. In a further breach of protocol, I pushed through the swing gate and planted myself near the dumb-waiter in Delivery, where I waited for the book to surface.

    "This is terribly kind of you," Jesson said as I slid Secret Compartments under the brass grille.

    "Glad to be of service."

    I was professional enough not to mention the uncanny overlap of our interests—I don't meet many readers keen on lettering technique and enclosures. But that same restraint left memildly disappointed. The call slip was so enticing, our exchange so stilted and brief.

    Jesson settled himself at a table near the municipal tax codes. He quickly supplied further proof of a charmingly outmoded manner by digging deep into his capacious trouser pockets to extract a roll of paper, a tiny ink pot, and a calligraphy pen. Though he seemed to ignore the stares of nearby readers, he occasionally glanced in my direction, as if to confirm that I'd stuck around. Which, of course, I had. In fact, while he took notes on Secret Compartments, I took notes on him, convinced that the consonance of our uncommon pursuits demanded annotation.

    He wore billowy trousers of moss-green corduroy that had wale as thick as pencils. These he partnered with a button-down shirt of subtle stripe and a dainty chamois vest tied at the back with a fat purple ribbon. He had an indulgent-looking face and blue-gray eyes that recalled the color of the buckram on my compact OED. Despite a bump at the bridge of his nose and teeth that predated fluoridation, he was undeniably handsome, a scholar who appeared unencumbered by the tattered frugality of most academics I assist. Those, in toto, were my preliminary observations of the elderly man wishing to steal a moment of my time.

* * *

When the closing bell sounded, I sifted through the wire basket of call slips kept at Returns. My friend Norton noticed me swapping the calligraphic original for a quickly scribbled substitute.

    "A little something for your collection?"

    I nodded.

     "What is it this time?"

    "Just some furniture book," I said, downplaying my interest. Norton and I disagreed about the utility of paper records, and I didn't want to be deflected from inspection by yet another sparring session.

    I located Jesson's book without difficulty. Secret Compartments was filled with line drawings of card tables, glass-fronted cabinets, and pedestal globes, each image accompanied by a technical description of the mechanism triggering release.

    Norton glanced over my shoulder and chuckled. "Let's see here. A book about false fronts and hidden recesses." He paused. "Seems an awful lot like you."

Chapter Two

AFTER MR. SINGH, one of our more vigilant exit guards, doweled through my satchel with his stick of polished pine, I said good night to Norton and started the long walk uptown.

    At a traffic light near Lincoln Center, on a stretch of Broadway that brashly disrupts the city's grid, I withdrew the purloined call slip just as a taxi pulled up to the curb. The driver, compact and neatly dressed, jumped out, popped the trunk, and produced a small rug, which he unfurled with a firm, practiced snap. Then, facing a warehouse topped by a miniature Statue of Liberty, he kneeled in prayer. While the cabby, oblivious to the rush-hour traffic, satisfied his devotional obligations, I focused on the slip, noticing for the first time that its lettering leaned gently backward, as if to corroborate the writer's inclination toward the past. When the light changed, I put the slip back in my pocket, determined to investigate the origins of the beautiful script.

    I got home just as the sun was dropping behind the water towers. Mr. Lopez, wearing his super's hat (he also owned the corner bodega), was hosing down an old ceramic sign that said, NO LOITERING OR BALL PLAYING, a wistful reminder of quieter times—before the spray of fluorescent paint and nine-millimeter bullets blemished the brick, before teenage crack dealers hung sneakers from lampposts to advertise their drive-by business.

    "Hey, Mr. Lopez," I called out. "Can we get the landlord to update that sign?"


    "Maybe it should just say, NO DRUGS."

    Mr. Lopez said, "Okay, my friend," his standard response to all complaints, whether about street crime, boiler malfunctions, or rats sharpening their teeth against the rotting wallboard. He turned to admire one of his children, who had just crawled inside the cabinet of a television set abandoned on the curb a week before. The little boy, discovering that an old paint roller served nicely as a gun, scanned the block for targets and soon found his father and me in his sights. As the child squeezed off imaginary rounds from inside the TV, I took a few quick notes. The natural place to register the scene would have been the "Enclosure" section of my girdle book, but I'd determined long before to restrict that rubric to purely autobiographical entries. I opted for "Street Views, Misc."

    A gypsy cab caught my eye. Once more a driver hopped out and yanked something from the trunk. This time the object was a black satin jacket that advertised Les Misérables. The cabby beckoned Mr. Lopez, who, after careful inspection of the contraband, peeled a twenty from a fat roll of cash. As he was completing the sale, the nightly drug trade started revving up.

    "We gots blue." ... "Blue's doin' it." ... "Blue's out."

    The super grabbed his child from the TV cabinet and bundled him into the building. I followed close behind but stopped when I felt a crunch underfoot. I bent down and picked up an inch-long torpedo of plastic used to package crack cocaine. This isn't blue, I found myself thinking. There's too much purple in the mix. Periwinkle, maybe, or cornflower. Suddenly I had a vision of the guys on the corner shouting, "Periwinkle's doin' it!" and "We gots cornflower!" Maybe I could scrounge up an offprint of "A System of Color Identification for Bibliographical Description" and convince the dealers to refine their patter.

    My attention shifted when an ebony BMW pulled up to the curb. A tinted window lowered with an electronic whir.

    "Yo! You with that fuckin' notebook thing. You gots a problem?"

    The challenge was punctuated with a prodigious gob of spit. Sensing there was little dividend in direct response, I smiled and ducked inside, taking the stairs two at a time. At the front door of our apartment, I tripped over the size 16EEE sneakers my wife keeps around to scare off intruders.

* * *

I hung up my jacket and satchel and checked the mail: credit card bills, the Dewey Circle quarterly, and a course bulletin from House of Paper, the arts center where Nic taught the odd course on pop-up design. There was also a letter from a library-school classmate I never much liked, announcing his

Excerpted from The Grand Complication by Allen Kurzweil. Copyright © 2001 by Allen Kurzweil. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Meet the Author

Allen Kurzweil has won various awards for his fiction, including fellowships from the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He is currently a Fellow at Brown University's John Nicholas Brown Center. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with his wife and son.

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