The Dumas Club is an intellectual thriller, a kind of high brow Da Vinci Code. However, even though it's a translation, it's still better written than Dan Brown's potboiler. The book's hero is Lucas Corso, a "mercenary of the book world" who specialises in tracking down obscure texts. After the apparent suicide of a book dealer, Corso is hired to authenticate a rare manuscript chapter of The Three Musketeers.
Meanwhile another book dealer has just acquired a seventeenth century book containing instructions for summoning the devil. He thinks the book, which is one of three surviving copies, is a fake and wants Corso to track down the other two copies. The more Corso investigates, the more it seems that his two jobs are somehow linked.
The plot unfolds on several levels. At the most basic, it's a pacey action thriller set in the intriguing world of dusty books and weird collectors. Perez-Reverte fills his story with all manner of detail on antique books, their construction and how they are authenticated - not to mention a wealth of trivia about Alexandre Dumas.
Alongside that, Perez-Reverte plays with the notion of mysteries, detection and the role of the narrator. Corso wonders "whether someone, some twisted novelist or drunken writer of cheap screenplays, at that very moment saw him as an imaginary character, who considered himself imaginary, in an imaginary world". The 'character wondering whether he's imaginary' trick has been tried in other novels and is not easy to pull off but the author's light touch means that such ruminations fit the story he has constructed without jarring.
On top of it all is a novel about the complicity between author and reader. Perez-Reverte sets out his puzzle early on and even offers a daringly heavy hint at the solution. That the reader is taken in and ignores the clues, the author says, is his own choice. It's part of the game. As one character says late in the novel: "There are no innocent readers any more. Each overlays the text with his own perverse view. A reader is all that he's read before, in addition to all the films and TV that he's seen."
Crucially, the book can be enjoyed on any or all of these levels. It doesn't matter whether or not you pick up on Perez-Reverte's point about readership - it's built into the construction of the plot.
This is a witty, intelligent book and great fun to read. My only gripe is a resolution that comes slightly too quickly and a final twist that I still can't get my head around. I'll try to puzzle it out over the next few days.