Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels and the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced National Treasure series created an over-proliferation of action-adventure mystery stories, steeped in cryptography and conspiracy theories. But now that the furor has died down a bit, it’s about time someone else came along with a compact, riveting mystery—something told with more literary sense than a book on the paperback shelves of an airport, but not the aggressively off-putting pretension of Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery. Robin Sloan’s debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, aims for the middle of those two extremes, and comes up with something along the lines of The Da Vinci Code for typography nerds.
Set in the San Francisco Bay Area, though a much different slice than Jay Caspian Kang’s pulp crime novel The Dead Do Not Improve, Sloan’s debut does begin with a similarly aimless protagonist. Clay Jannon, a web designer recently out of work, stumbles into a gig working the night shift at the titular bookshop. But it isn’t a typical big-box chain, or even a darling indie bookstore like City Lights. Penumbra’s store has a private membership that checks out large, incredibly obscure volumes from a library of shelves that stretch to the building’s impossibly high ceilings.
What follows is an oft-thrilling investigation into the origin of the books and the mystery behind this secretive membership. As Clay grows more curious, he draws his best friends and romantic acquaintances into orbit to aid with the search. His childhood best friend hit it big with a tech startup that digitally renders the human body—particularly breasts—and his sort-of girlfriend is a rising leader at Google, intent on digitizing the obscure library to unlock the secrets buried in the endless backlog of semi-coherent pages.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore could be a drab, whiny affair, bemoaning the loss of physical books, the rise of a Kindle nation, and the impersonal Internet library pioneered by Google, then exploited for advertising revenue. Instead, it rolls along at a nice clip, progressing through the mystery behind the library with inspired humor. Sloan’s depiction of startup culture in San Francisco is positively dead-on and bitingly funny, and taking the story to Google’s Mountain View campus offers plenty of opportunities to poke holes in the puffed-up egos of the digital behemoth.
Sloan manages to celebrate the history of the printed word with a scavenger hunt that doesn’t need to unravel the fabric of society. Sloan clearly loves physical books, but as a former Twitter and Current TV employee, he embraces technology as well, and the novel rides the borderline of the print/digital divide without tipping its hand in preference too heavily either way. It’s overly serious in spots, particular Clay’s meandering pontifications, but that doesn’t get in the way of some serious fun unraveling a compelling mystery.