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Cloak and dagger and a #2 pencil

Another spine-tingling novel about librarians

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If the publishing industry is any guide (and, of course, it's not), expect to see a new line of librarian action figures under the tree this Christmas. Kids will clamor for Marian(TM), armed with her stubby, eraserless pencil. She vanquishes foes with a single "Shhhh."

For the second time this year, the dusty souls who read newspaper book sections are being rewarded with a high-adventure novel about an intrepid librarian. (You heard it here first: Tom Cruise will star in a new thriller called "Mission Impossible: 312.594.232.")

In March, Ross King published "Ex-Libris," a wildly complex novel about a 17th-century bookworm risking his life to find a missing text.

Now, Allen Kurzweil has set a rollicking, witty suspense tale in the New York Public Library. The hero of "The Grand Complication" is a strange reference librarian named Alexander Short, a comic hybrid of Sigmund Freud and Edgar Allan Poe.

By profession and temperament, he's a compulsive cataloger. He always wears a little notebook "girdled" to his waist for making lists of everything around him in secret code. When he's feeling anxious, he retreats to a small cage in his apartment to organize his ever-growing collection of call slips.

This behavior hardly sets him apart from the other weird shelvers, restorers, researchers, and petty dictators who keep New York's great repository running smoothly, despite their comically bizarre conflicts. (There's an acrimonious battle over proper use of cellophane tape.) With this novel, Kurzweil has so much fun in the library that he's sure to lose his checkout privileges.

Alexander's adventure begins when a gracious old man asks him to find a book called "Secret Compartments in Eighteenth-Century Furniture." For Alexander, it's an irresistible encounter. He, too, has an interest in secret compartments. He's entranced by the old man's handwriting, "executed with confident ascenders and tapering exit strokes." And he's captivated by the man's "improbably literary name: Henry James Jesson III."

With his typically arched tone, Alexander notes that "in the vocabulary of the library cataloger, Jesson was infuriatingly N.E.C. (Not Elsewhere Classified)." But the old man has no trouble enticing Alexander to his town house filled with antiques and odd contraptions. He rejects modern conveniences like phones, television, fluorescent lights, and any cheese wrapped in plastic.

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