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Monday, February 22, 2021

The Book of Lamps and Banners by Elizabeth Hand

Mulholland Books, 352 pages, $27 (c2020)

Sometimes reading Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary books is like coming upon an accident and not being able to look away. I love Cass Neary. I hate Cass Neary. I love Cass Neary. Sometimes her escapades – no, that sounds too Audrey Hepburn – sometimes her catastrophic undertakings make the inside of my skin itch. I am a fan.

Elizabeth Hand’s series defies pigeon-holing. I am reminded of Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt books, which are similarly undefinable. It’s a big pot that holds the ingredients for the Cast Neary books. They are dark, inscrutable, visual, hard on the nerves, noir, punk, words as speed.

Hand only issues a Cass Neary book every four years or so. That sounds like a good period of time for her fans to recuperate and to get them jonesing for another story.

Cass has just finished a blow-out with bad people in Iceland. Now she and her boyfriend — once again, too genteel a term — her human narcotic, Quinn, are in London. In ways that are best left not too heavily scrutinized, Cass becomes involved in the search for an ancient book, the work of many hands over many centuries. (How would anyone know what Plato’s handwriting looks like to authenticate it, Cass wonders.) This is not totally out of her wheelhouse; after all, she worked at the Strand Bookstore for many years. Granted, that work was in the stock room, but …

Tindra, a rich woman who can code like the devil, wants the book. Some other nefarious (we assume) souls also want the book. There is something downright supernatural about the book’s ability to mesmerize people, including Cass. After encountering the book for mere minutes, she experiences an intense flashback to her most unforgettable moment. Unfortunately, the flashback is to when she was raped as a young woman in New York.

The trail eventually leads to Sweden and we are all welcome to draw a comparison to another tough, stubborn woman with dark secrets, Lisbeth Salander. However, whereas Lisbeth was young, Cass is in her forties, or maybe even her fifties.

Cass also has substance abuse issues. If it’s a substance, Cass has abused it. It is a race to the finish whether Cass will expire from overdosing or withdrawal before she solves the mystery of where the book is, where Tindra is, and who killed various people who came into contact with The Book.

I might not ride in the car Cass is driving, but I’m happy to follow far, far behind in my own vehicle.

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