A Compelling Literary and Historical Mystery/Thriller Not Written by Dan Brown
There are certain “puzzle” books that I absolutely adore, mysteries tied up in history, covered in drama with some romance and suspense to keep the plot surging along. They can be done very poorly if the author is just in it for the cheap thrill, but when they are right, when the history is true, the characters are honest and the sense of foreboding is palpable, then they are some of the best reading ever. Katherine Neville’s The Eight is probably my all time favorite puzzle book and one I have been trying to find a worthy successor to forever. I got lucky a month ago when I sat down to read The Geographer’s Library. It not only serves as an honest heir Neville’s book about Charlemagne and a chess set for the ages, but manages to do so with an excellent international storyline that never strays into the dreaded travelogue territory. In fact, with this book author Jon Fasman has made me a fan of an obscure 12th century Muslim geographer who I’m sure most of the Western world had never heard of. Well, wake up America because you need to know about Azzam Abd Salih Jafar Khalid Idris. What I wanted to know was how Fasman learned about "al-Idrisi" in the first place and how he managed to juggle so much history and geography along with a very contemporary mystery about a college professor who may or may not have been murdered. It could not have been easy to write this book although for the reader it is a seductive foray into the best sort of dream and ends with a surprising question about morals and courage and just who the good guys really are.
In terms of location, Geographer takes its readers from Italy to Estonia to Russia and then lands in the very typical American small town of Lincoln, Connecticut. There are numerous side trips however, from places as varied as a labor camp in Northern Siberia, a bazaar in Ashbagat, Turkmenistan, the fictional Aubrey College set at Oxford University and a Chinese restaurant in LaGrange Park, Illinois. There is a lot for the characters to do and say in this book, a lot of hunting up clues and suspecting foul play. The back story is where nearly all of the travel takes place, from al-Idrisi’s initial journey in 1154 to the wanderings of a Russian killer who somehow must have something to do with the main storyline, although Fasman holds those connections pretty close to his chest throughout the book. The main plotline is that of Lincoln newspaperman Paul Tomm who is assigned to write the obituary for local professor, Jaan Puhapaev. There are just enough small questions surrounding Puhapaev’s death and solitary, unorthodox life to make Tomm expand his dull assignment into a full fledged investigation. As he takes steps into better understanding the dead Estonian who seemed to be less known by everyone around him than anyone realized, he unwittingly uncovers plots and plans that involve people and places he has never heard of, and cannot imagine a connection to. In short, Paul Tomm, young aimless reporter from Small Town, America, finds himself inside of a conspiracy that seems to be escalating at every turn. He reminded me of Robert Redford coming back to the office with lunch only to find all of his coworkers dead in Three Days of the Condor. Tomm knows too much, but doesn’t know what he knows. Is there a worse position for someone to be in, or a better one us to read about?
The back story for Geographer is about the acquisition history of fifteen mysterious and apparently sacred objects, all of which once belonged to al-Idrisi. In alternating chapters Tomm pursues his suspicions and the objects change owners and are slowly collected by a man willing to kill to possess them. These objects, among them two flutes, a chess game’s castle, a playing card with a crying queen and a clay pot, are all very significant to the story’s development and ultimate showdown between Tomm and the forces that have maneuvered against him. The objects really are the whole point, and the delicate way in which Fasman has crafted their history and design raises the entire book from popular fiction to a literary wonder.
Everything in The Geographer’s Library was chosen and written by Fasman for a reason. Estonia figures largely in the text because Fasman likes the town of Tallinn and it was there that he first learned of al-Idrisi. “When my wife and I were in Moscow,” he wrote to me recently, “we had to get our visas renewed, which we did in Tallinn, Estonia. While there we went to a historical museum which mentioned that al-Idrisi was the first non-Balt to mention Tallinn… It fascinated me that someone from what was then the center of the world (the Arab world) would develop an interest in what was then a heathen backwater. My curiosity just grew from there.” And that is how grand book ideas are born.
Fasman knew from the very beginning that the book he was writing would begin with al-Idrisi and his fictional reason for traveling to Estonia. From there it developed into a mystery that incorporated aspects of both mysticism and science all heavily steeped in history and geography. Make no mistake, one of the most significant aspects of Geographer is that it is an international book and not just be dint of the changing locales but by its very nature and flavor. “I did set out to let my mind wander around the world in the interchapters,” writes Fasman, “while giving the story a definite sense of place in the main story. I came to the Middle East via Central Asia, which has always been, to me, the most fascinating region in the world (Silk Road, Tamurlane, Genghis Khan, etc.)” Because of the long tradition of written history in these places, Fasman felt comfortable using them as the source and destination for his field of ancient objects. “My imagination felt at home in these places,” he writes and continues later with, “When I was living in Russia my father-in-law was living in Almaty [Kazakhstan] and traveling through the Stans; I soaked up his stories and recycled some of them.”
This ability to embrace the potential in distant locales while still insisting on a level of accuracy found in both research and traveler’s stories brought each of the “interchapters” strongly to life. Fasman has not been to all of the places he wrote about, but he does know about them and of them and was careful to tread softly on the details that a more casual writer might have exaggerated for dramatic appeal. This is probably due to his long journalism background more than anything else, but it allows the book to be read on two levels, both as the thriller it is and also as an intriguing cultural history. He threw in an Oxford botanist for example, one of my favorite characters, because he spent two years in graduate school at Oxford. The entire book is, in fact, a culmination of where Jon Fasman has been and what he has read. It is a purely fantastic story based completely on the life and interests of one man. No one else could have written The Geographer’s Library because only Jon Fasman would have put these particular characters in these particular places. He is, after all, the only one who took the museum’s quick mention of al-Idrisi and Estonia and kept asking himself why long after he left. That relentless curiosity alone was enough to spark everything that followed.
Probably the greatest amount of research came into play when crafting the stories of the fifteen objects. Nothing here is by whim or chance; everything has significance. “I wanted to include the four elements, and also the two metals representing the sun and moon: mercury and gold,” writes Fasman. “But I also relied on the spectrum of colors/stages through which an object supposedly passes in the course of alchemical transformation. So I needed something dark (the Ethiopian wood triptych -- useful too because alchemists used the figure of an African man, which some called ‘an Ethiopian’ to refer to an object at this stage), something yellow and red (the medicos) and something rainbow-colored (the peacock feather). The condensation visible when an object is heated in an alembic was sometimes called the queen’s tears, hence the crying queen of Hoxton [the playing card]. And there were occasional opaque references to the sun and its shadow; hence the fifteenth object [a pendant].” Everything matters in this book.
The best part is that the ending pays off nicely on all the intrigues that come before although I will confess that while I liked very much the subtle surprises I still wish that Paul Tomm had been a bit more adventurous, more Indiana Jones perhaps and less Murray Slaughter. (Not to suggest that Tomm isn’t a great character, that’s probably just my own latent attraction for Harrison Ford kicking in yet again.) Fasman has his own ideas about how Tomm developed as he did and as far as thoughts of sequel, writes, “I’m not tempted to send Paul off on more adventures; he’s a nice boy and will be a fine journalist somewhere, someday, but he doesn’t really interest me anymore.” As for the author’s thoughts on the future: “If I had to do it over again (which is another way of saying: in the book I’m starting to think about now), I would make the hero a bit more of an active agent.” This means for fans of the The Geographer’s Library that there is more to come in Fasman’s unique style of literary historical mystery/thriller. For me, this makes putting his book on my shelf a little less sad, as I know it won’t be alone forever. At the very least, there is finally something to keep company with The Eight and I am happy to know that a style of book that I have been sorely missing has returned. Ultimately though, The Geographer’s Library and its author should be lauded for bringing the amazing real geographer, al-Idrisi back to the world. For asking himself a question in that Estonian museum and for not stopping in pursuit of an answer, Fasman deserves as many fans as his writing can bring him. There is a whole world out there, this book tells its readers, just open your eyes and you can see it, you can see things you never imagined.
Today, more than ever, the world needs more geographers, and reading an excellent, smart and engaging book like this one is a great place for all of us to start looking.