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Witty thriller plays on past and present

Michael Gruber uses a lawyer, a filmmaker, and a long-dead Elizabethan spy as the narrators of his novel. Michael Gruber uses a lawyer, a filmmaker, and a long-dead Elizabethan spy as the narrators of his novel. (nina subin)

The Book of Air and Shadows
By Michael Gruber
Morrow, 466 pp., $24.95

If all the world's a play, and we are merely players, where do we get our scripts? That's the underlying question in Michael Gruber's smart new thriller, "The Book of Air and Shadows. " From the opening scene, in which a weight-lifting intellectual property lawyer is hiding from thugs in a deserted Adirondacks lake house, to the murder of a Columbia University scholar and the romantic exploits of a frustrated would-be filmmaker, Gruber's characters are looking for their lines. That these lines could be in a previously unknown play by Shakespeare is one possibility, and the motivation for a trans-Atlantic treasure hunt that brings the Russian mob into play.

But in a book where characters confuse their fictions with reality and consider the impact of contemporary film on the villains seeking to kill them, this possibly nonexistent treasure is only one text in a world rich with books, models, and other examples of how to live. Even if the play does exist, and that question is not answered till the very last pages of this engaging adventure, it may not be the most important piece of writing for any of the people seeking it.

If "The Book of Air and Shadows," a contemporary Elizabethan reference to the missing play, sounds overly refined, think again. Gruber's themes may be lofty, but his people -- notably his narrators Jake Mishkin, Albert Crosetti, and Richard Bracegirdle -- are fully fleshed and often funny, with arch senses of humor and irony:

"Doesn't he get killed at the end of the play?"

"He does, but don't we all?"

Such dialogue, along with constant reflections on everything from "The Godfather" to "The Sopranos," gives witty life to the intersecting narratives as Mishkin, the womanizing lawyer, seeks to save his own life, or at least his marriage; Crosetti, the young filmmaker, tries to recast living in Queens, with his widowed mother, as a romance; and Bracegirdle, a long-dead Elizabethan spy, confesses to save his soul. These three tell their stories in their own ways. Mishkin narrates in first person. Crosetti, constantly referring to Jean Renoir and Martin Scorsese, blocks his scenes out in third person, while Bracegirdle talks through his letters, revealing himself and his times. These coded missives, which may (or may not) lead to the priceless play, are what bring the characters together. As they work through the letters, it also becomes clear that despite their common intelligence all three also share a tendency toward self-deception. Is Mishkin really the heartless heavyweight he believes he is? Is Bracegirdle a player, either in political games or the theater, or is he being played? And will Crosetti ever get to use the lines he has memorized through endless viewings of classic cinema?

Books about hidden codes have become their own genre, following the success of "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Rule of Four. " And both scholarly analyses and pop fiction ("Chasing Shakespeares ") have stirred interest in the real life of the Bard of Avon. Gruber's novel follows both these leads, and readers will find themselves educated not only in the history of cryptology, from grille texts to Vigenère solvers, but also in the religious battles of 16th-century England. But because of the overarching theme, the scripting of our lives, these bits of information don't take over. The characters, even those long dead, are learning how to live. They are trying to understand their problems. And always, they use what is around them -- movies, TV, 400-year-old plays, or today's news -- for reference. As one gangster protests, defending his honesty: "Please! . . . I had nothing to do with any torture, same as President Bush."

Only rarely does pop culture, from any century, fail these players. When it does, even that is telling. "She rolled out of bed and stood next to him, smelling of bed," notes one character, finally at a loss . Because ultimately even the wily misfits of "The Book of Air and Shadows" realize we are all simply unaccommodated man, the thing itself, looking for the right words to make sense out of our worlds.