Library of the Dead

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 October, 2009, 12:00am

Library of the Dead
by Glenn Cooper
Arrow Books HK$100

Banker David Swisher, 36, is stabbed to death while walking his dog at 5am. Elizabeth Kohler, 37, is shot in an apparent robbery at the drug store she manages. Illegal immigrant Consuela Lopez, 32, is raped and stabbed on her way home from her job as an office cleaner. Myles Drake, a 24-year-old bicycle courier, is killed in a hit-and-run incident. Milos Kovic, 82, falls to his death from his ninth-floor apartment. Marco Napolitano, 18, fresh from secondary school, dies of a heroin overdose. Ida Santiago, 78, is shot dead in her bedroom. Jazz pianist Lucius Robertson, 66, dies suddenly from no obvious cause.

Apart from the fact that all the deaths occur in New York after May 21 this year, they appear to be unconnected, but for one chilling factor: each victim had been sent a postcard bearing a coffin and the date of their death.

The police suspect a serial murderer, who newspapers dub the Doomsday Killer.

In the year 777, a comet appears in the sky, alarming the monks of Vectis Abbey on the Isle of Wight. The wife of a seventh son of a seventh son is about to give birth to her seventh son and Prior Josephus fears the worst.

In February 1947, Britain's prime minister, Clement Attlee, coaxes Winston Churchill out of retirement to help after a discovery at the abbey. Churchill turns to US president Harry Truman, who delegates the matter to naval secretary James Forrestal, who then kills himself.

In the present day, a computer operator at Area 51 in Roswell, New Mexico, bored with his job at the base where the US allegedly stores its aliens, dreams of fame and fortune as a scriptwriter.

And into this cocktail of apparently unrelated events steps FBI super-sleuth Will Piper. An expert tracker of serial murderers who is nearing retirement, Piper is given the Doomsday Killer case as his swansong. His job is to solve the apparently random equation of deaths with the help of sidekick Nancy Lipinski.

With the action taking place in the present, the 1940s and the eighth century, there is another date to take into account when discussing Glenn Cooper's Library of the Dead: AD6, six years after Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code was published.

In that period, there has been an increase in novels with apocalyptic themes or steeped in metaphysical secrecy. This is one of them. 'Remember the date 21.05.2009,' the promotional material says: 'The most shocking secret in the history of mankind will be revealed.'

But what could that have to do with an eighth-century abbey, Roswell and a serial killer? As Piper puts it when Lipinski comes up with a possible explanation: 'The only arch criminal I know who's capable of all this evil brilliance is Lex Luthor, and the last time I checked he was in a comic book.'

Library of the Dead falls into the AD6 category, but it is more entertaining and better written than The Da Vinci Code and a remarkable debut from a Harvard graduate of archaeology, now the chairman and CEO of a biotechnology company. It may not involve icons as significant as those in Brown's book but it makes up for that with a plot as bizarre as it is original.

Cooper is also a screenwriter with his own production company. Library of the Dead is almost certain to become a movie - which will be annoying because I know how it ends.