Title: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London
Author: Garth Nix
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020
Garth Nix is an award-winning writer of fantasy fiction, mostly for young adults. A full-time writer since 2001 with about thirty titles to his credit, Garth is no stranger to the world of publishing and book selling. He is a 1963-edition Melburnian now living in Sydney with his wife and two children.
At eighteen, Susan, an art student, is ready to step out into life. But first she must find out who her father is. Her mother, though loving and caring, is vague and a scatterbrain; perhaps too many drugs in her early days, an excuse for not remembering the details of Susan’s father. Susan’s only clues include a silver gilt cigarette case, a faded library reading room ticket, and a so-called Uncle Frank in London.
The story, set largely in a somewhat alternate 1983 London, opens with the demise of crime boss Frank Thringly at the hands of a young and attractive Left-Handed Bookseller called Merlin. Frank is a Sipper (of blood), there being no such things as vampires. The Booksellers are an extended secret family policing the mythic Old World to prevent it intruding into the Modern World. Left-handed family members are action oriented, doing the dirty work in the field, such as eliminating miscreant Sippers. Right-handed members are intellectual. The family also sells books.
Merlin is caught red handed, so to speak, by Susan, but before she can call the police the two are attacked by a horse-sized bug. Merlin shoots the bug and gives Susan the choice of staying to be killed by Frank’s evil associates or escaping through the open window with him. Taking her chances, she opts for Merlin and the window, and quickly becomes enmeshed in the intrigues of Booksellers and the Old World.
After the initial escape from danger, Susan is aided by Merlin and his sister, Vivian, in unravelling the secret of her father and her connections to the Old World. The obvious romantic spark between Susan and Merlin smoulders in the background while they escape from attacking monsters and thwart the ambitions for power and domination by evil forces. The trio’s quest for the truth becomes a battle for the future.
Garth has done a great job of putting this story together. He borrows from classic Hollywood chase movies and at one point our heroes are pursued by villains and police, the police at times made to act like villains.
The underlying themes and metaphors are familiar to this genre, with demons and mythical characters as metaphors for the challenges of life and growing up. Garth also touches on the ideas of challenging the status quo, and the flow of responsibility from generation to generation.
The story has an endearing quirkiness, a typical English silliness, perhaps reminiscent of the era in which it is set. There are plenty of colourful phrases like “pre-owned mustard-coloured three-piece suit”, “two-inch Cuban heels and “being stuck square on his roseate nose with a silver hatpin”. Adding to the eccentricity are nuances such as the idea of a special safe house run by Mrs London, the use of Black Cabs by the Booksellers referencing the TV spy series of the time, Callan. One might even wonder if the name Frank Thringly is a nod to the infamous Melbourne actor Frank Thring?
The Left-Handed Booksellers is an entertaining, fun read, well-paced with engaging characters; a light-hearted romp through some of the darker aspects of life. Perfect for idling away a few hours of a COVID lockdown.
Reviewed by: Frank Thompson, February 2021
Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group