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Literary take on vampires gives 'Historian' bite

The Historian, By Elizabeth Kostova, Little, Brown, 642 pp., $25.95

No longer relegated to roaming crumbling castles and crypts, today's vampires seem like hipsters -- brooding sensualists forever torn between a thirst for blood and a love of the world, eternally cool. Elizabeth Kostova's first novel, ''The Historian," however, looks back to Dracula as the reigning vampire, and instead of setting her labyrinthine novel in a series of gloomy nightclubs, Kostova returns us to ancient monasteries, tombs, and, most important, libraries.

The legend of Dracula has long been entangled with Bram Stoker's fictional account of the blood-sucking fiend we know so well. But there was a real Dracula: Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, known for running his enemies clean through from tail to tip. He ruled Walachia, one of the last Eastern European holdouts against the Ottoman invasion in the 15th century. Kostova's novel does a convincing job of blending these two characters into one mysterious creature.

The novel follows Paul, a young and gifted historian. While working on his dissertation late one night in the library, he discovers a strange book. At first glance it appears to be an old leather-bound volume of blank pages, except that the center leaves are engraved with a drawing of a fierce dragon, holding a banner that reads ''Drakulya." Paul decides to show it to his adviser, Bartholomew Rossi.

After Rossi admits to having a similar book, he entrusts Paul with the story of his own research into Dracula. Soon after their discussion, Rossi disappears, leaving behind a stack of unsent letters recounting his quest to uncover the burial place of Dracula, who Rossi believes is still alive. So begins an epistolary narrative, which moves from Rossi's letters to Paul's own, written to his daughter. In these letters, the novel's centerpiece, Paul recounts his search for Rossi.

Lovers of the new genre of bibliophile mysteries will find much to cozy up to. While there are certainly encounters with vampires, there are more encounters with books. Instead of fetishizing blood, Kostova fetishizes documents (manuscripts, maps, letters) and the places that house them (libraries, archives, and monasteries).

Paul follows Rossi's trail through Istanbul, Bulgaria, across the Danube to Romania, and beyond. Eastern Europe becomes charged with mystery and holy dread, and history is everywhere. Dracula himself exists at the margins of the tale; his chronicles, like a coffin, are slowly unearthed. To say more about what's inside would constitute what is rightly called a spoiler.

The novel's weakest aspect is its format, which is actually integral to the plot. The various letter sequences read more like diary entries than correspondence, and this makes the main characters sound mostly alike. They are hopelessly romantic scholars, prone to weeping at both beauty and cruelty. Yet none of the characters is confronted by temptation, which is unusual for a vampire novel. Those who are good remain profoundly good, even when infected by a vampire's bite.

The most intriguing character in Kostova's tale is Dracula himself. Often portrayed as the enemy of Christianity, this Dracula is Christian. Much of what is frightening in the novel is the suggestion of heretical Christian practices and conspiratorial monks. Dracula's real enemy is the legacy of the Ottoman Turks. In ''The Historian," the greatest vampire hunters are Muslim.

Many mysteries are left unsolved. Those that are come at the expense of continuity and logic. Nevertheless, ''The Historian" is engrossing, and Kostova's depiction of the work of historians is strangely riveting. The suspense is slow to build, but the final chapters are genuinely terrifying. Libraries figure prominently to the end and are transformed from repositories of knowledge to houses of corruption and greed. And the figure of Dracula has returned in grand style: regal, evil, and well read beyond compare.

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