The Broken Teaglass

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

I'm a mystery lover.  Have been ever since my mother started passing her Sara Paretsky and Patricia Cornwell novels to me as a teenager.  And I'm a lover of words.  It feels childish, but whenever someone compliments my writing or remarks on an unusual word I use when speaking, I get a little thrill of pride.  So The Broken Teaglass seemed like a can't miss for me-a combination of mystery and word worship.

The Broken Teaglass, by Emily Arsenault,  is set in the offices of the Samuelson Dictionary Company.  The main character, Billy Webb, is just out of college.  He accepts a job as a junior editor at the company, and soon finds himself working in a silent, slightly depressing cubicle.  One day, while working on updating definitions for a new edition, he comes across something interesting in the citations file.  It starts out like any other citation, except that it is longer than most, and appears to be from a book about the very company he works for.  He takes it to a co-worker, who gets sucked into the mystery when she searches for the book the citation is from, only to find that no such book was ever published.  Their curiosity sends them on a quest to find other citations from the same book.  With each one they find, they are drawn deeper into a murder mystery that involves the very people they work with each and every day.

As mysteries go, this one can't exactly be called a thriller.  But it is definitely a quirky little novel, that gains momentum almost imperceptibly until I found I couldn't put it down.  Part of it was the fascination of seeing how a dictionary is compiled.  Yes, I said fascination.  I love words, and anything to do with words.  There is something beautiful about the idea that even a dictionary, the very thing that we use to define our language, is as fluid and changing as the language itself.  The overall mood of the book is pretty dark-everything I pictured in my mind was in gray-scale.  The silent offices, the cold streets, the empty apartment that Billy went home to every night, provided a blank slate for the emotions provoked by the mystery itself.

I suppose that every whodunnit type of mystery is a puzzle to be pieced together, but this one is like one of those puzzles that is printed on both sides.  Because before Billy and Margot (or you as the reader) can put together the puzzle, they must first find and interpret all of the pieces, which are scattered among thousands of citations according to a system that they themselves must decode.  I felt such relief when all of the clues were finally revealed, and frankly the actual resolution was almost a let-down by comparison.  But it was worth it.

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