The Black Book of Secrets, by F. E. Higgins, has one of the most intriguing premises I’ve seen in a juvenile novel, or an adult novel, in a long time. A quiet man of questionable means moves into a neighborhood where everyone is being bullied by a man who owns everything worth owning. The quiet man, Joe Zabbidou, opens a pawnshop and starts buying what is basically worthless junk from the poor people who live there. Shortly after acquiring a young, homeless thief as his apprentice, Joe begins buying the darkest secrets of anyone who will sell them to him during the midnight hour.
I read about the book in a forthcoming announcement and wanted to think about it before I just purchased it. I was in Minnesota over the holidays and stopped in at a bookstore. The Black Book of Secrets sat on the New Arrivals shelves. Immediately fascinated, I picked up a copy.
The packaging is as compelling and intriguing as the story’s premise. The covers, front and back, are a flat black with the illustration and the back cover copy on them. My eye didn’t catch the designs worked into the book until I felt them. The most eye-catching part of the whole package, though, was the black gilt that framed the pages all the way around. I’ve never seen a book like that. The treatment made the book feel almost…dangerous – and certainly foreboding.
I was mesmerized, really. Whether the trade dress (publishing term for how a book looks) was really that good or I was just a soft touch, I don’t know. The book’s designer is fantastic. The only real bright spot on the book’s cover is that curious and brightly colored frog.
When I opened the book, I found the inside was just as different as the outside. The book’s generous margins, clear and easy to read font, and the thin, almost fragile feel of the pages made me want to turn them.
I read the opening chapter, a short but very intense five pages, and was instantly gripped by poor Ludlow Fitch’s predicament. Ludlow lives in the City, but it can’t be any other city than 19th century London, and the mean, downtrodden existence he leads is properly Dickensian. His lowlife parents have taken Ludlow to a foul dentist to sell the teeth right out of his head. They strap him into the dentist’s chair and the dentist, Dr. Gumbroot — another nice, Dickensian touch — grabs a pair of pliers and latches onto one of Ludlow’s teeth. In that scene alone, I was as hooked as Ludlow.
I picked the book up. Due to the workload I’ve got, I couldn’t get back to it until yesterday. I started it to take a few minutes at lunch. Instead, I ended up captivated and read the entire novel. At 260 pages, it’s fairly short by today’s standards.
I was swept away through the dirty streets of that neighborhood, got to know all the broken dreams and lost hopes of the people that came to Joe Zabbidou’s pawnshop to sell their darkest secrets, and became even more curious about why Joe was buying them. I also discovered that our hero, Ludlow Fitch, wasn’t the most reliable person Joe could have trusted.
I’m torn over calling this a children’s book or an adult one. I think it plays equally well for both. The novel offers a compelling story with rich characters and a unique time and place that still stands apart from 19th century England in the same way that Joseph Delaney’s The Last Apprentice books do. In some ways it breaks the tenets of juvenile books because it spends so much time with the adult characters, but it never discusses anything inappropriate about their lives or motivations that nine-twelve-year-olds won’t understand.
The building sense of mystery and dread is fantastic, but I have to admit that when everything was said and done, I was somewhat disappointed. After all the tension that was raised, I really expected more at the end. Still, everything made sense and it satisfied.
This is F. E. Higgins’s first book, but that doesn’t show. Her writing is spare and lean, and not overly descriptive. The narrative pacing is well done. It obviously kept me glued to the book and turning pages until I reached the end, and I’m not always an easy audience. She writes with authority and confidence, and I liked her characters quite a lot because they were so real.
One of the best parts of the book was being a voyeur and listening to the secrets those townspeople came to tell. Each one of them seemed almost like an Edgar Allan Poe short story, filled with twists and turns and surprises.
I don’t know yet if the book is going to be a series, but it could. Each Black Book of Secrets could be about a different place, with different secrets. Given the nature of people’s curiosity about other people’s secrets, I think this is a hook that would make a series work for a while. If Higgins can keep up this kind of quality, I’d definitely read another book or two about Joe and Ludlow.
Higgins does have a second book coming out in March 2008. It’s called The Bone Magician and sports a blood-red cover with a skull. I’ll be picking that one up when it comes out.Powered by Sidelines