“The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections” by Eva Jurczyk – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Liesl Weiss has been (mostly) happy working in the rare books department of a large university, managing details and working behind the scenes to make the head of the department look good. But when her boss has a stroke and she’s left to run things, she discovers that the library’s most prized manuscript is missing.

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I picked this one just because it’s a book about books – and what book-lover wouldn’t enjoy one of those once in a while?

Specifically, this one takes place in a library of ancient and rare books and manuscripts, housed on the campus of a university. The library has its own bevy of big donors, which makes it important to the university at large.

So when Liesl Weiss has to take over for her ailing boss, she doesn’t mind the real work. In fact, she loves looking at upcoming events and catalogs to see what rare items she could collect for the library. But dealing with donors – boozing, schmoozing, and stroking big egos – is not quite her thing.

She had been on sabbatical, writing her own book, when the head of the library fell ill. So, she wasn’t actually there when the newest addition had arrived, and she hasn’t seen it yet herself. The donors who paid for it are eager to view it, but Liesl can’t find it. The boss does have a safe, which she doesn’t have the combination for, so originally she assumes it’s just in there. She is in charge of the place for a good week or so before she starts to realize it’s actually missing.

And so sets the stage for the mystery here. At various points in the book, suspicion is thrown on each of her other long-time coworkers at the library: Francis, an older James Bond type who’s now a semi-bitter grandfather; Max, a former priest who was outed as gay and is the library’s expert on religious texts; and mousy Miriam, who mostly keeps to herself.

I hadn’t read a mystery in a while, and I really enjoyed this one. As with most, I feel like the pace really picks up in the final third or so – as I got closer to finding out who did it, I couldn’t help but keep turning pages. (I will say, though, without giving it away – that the perpetrator was exactly who I thought it’d be from the beginning!)

The copy I read had a little conversation with the author at the end, and she mentioned that one of her reasons for writing this book is because there are so few middle-aged women protagonists. Liesl is around 60, has worked at the library for decades, and is used to playing second banana. Her daughter is college-aged, and her husband has struggled in the past with depression. So she’s lived some life, if you will. But, as this is her first time dealing with anything of this magnitude, she often wrestles with how much she should go along with what the university president thinks, or how much she should stand up for her own opinions. I think a lot of women will find that relatable.

I was able to read this one for free through Sourcebooks Early Reads.


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