The Nifty Trick of the Missing Book (Spoiler Alert!)

Now that I’ve started blabbing, it’s going to be hard to stop. Though I’ve only read the first sixty pages, First Execution by Domenico Starnone has been such a startling literary experience that the urge to discuss the delights of this new novel are huge. Cleverness leaves me cold, I have no fondness for novelty or newness, I don’t tolerate narrators from beyond the grave, talking dogs, or angelic interference, and admittedly stories-within-stories fall into that category, and almost never work for me, but Starnone makes his tricks work emotionally. It’s like Italo Calvino writing a crime novel.

Okay, just one more surprise giveaway. Let me tell you the outrageously clever spin he puts on just one small part of the plot – the bit of the missing book.

I’ve mentioned in my last blog that that sixty-plus narrator professor has been sent by a former student, now accused of armed conspiracy, into a friend’s apartment to find a particular book, which is missing from its place on the shelf. At the end of Chapter Three, he finds the book by the bed and copies down the underlined sentence on page 46. But at the beginning of Chapter Four, the author intervenes and the sequence of finding the book is thrown out.

That, in itself, was so flabbergasting that it was the subject of my previous blog.

The story continues as the professor receives a threatening call from an unknown man demanding to know the underlined sentence in the book. The professor says he couldn’t find the book, that it was missing, but the guy isn’t buying it. “They told me that you always do what you promise you’re going to do,” he says ominously. “I’ll be there in two hours. Make sure you have what you promised.”

The effect of this on the reader is unique. On the one hand, we know the contrivance, we know the information was removed on purpose. But we also like the professor, and realize anxiously that he’s now in way over his head, that we’re going to have to watch him get beat up or hurt. He bravely heads back to the apartment, while the reader follows him in dread, certain it’s a set-up, that something very unpleasant will be waiting for him.

Don’t do it, Professor. Don’t go back there!

The apartment is on the third floor. One of the professor’s traits is constant courtesy. Though he has political fury against injustice always raging inside, on the outside he’s perpetually thoughtful and considerate. The same as the first time he came to the friend’s apartment, he kindly takes the mail upstairs and leaves it for him inside. There’s even more mail this time. He searches the apartment. The book is nowhere. Frantic for some kind of clue, he wonders what kind of job the apartment tenant does for a living that he would receive so much mail, and begins looking through the envelopes and packages.

One white package stands out. He turns it over. It’s not addressed to the tenant. It’s addressed to the professor.

He rips it open. The book is inside. Someone has left it there for him. And there’s a sentence underlined on page 46. It’s a different sentence.

There’s something thrilling about that. I gasped with pleasure. It’s the glimpse of the authorial hand at work behind the action, but at the same time it’s the glimpse of an Italian smile behind the intense noir suspense.

If the rest of the novel is as good as this, my book club has an unforgettable experience ahead for March. And that’s the last plot surprise you’re going to get out of me. No, not one more, don’t even try to persuade me. I’m going back to my book now, and my lips are sealed.



About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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