It's no secret that bookstore workers tend to be aspiring writers themselves, hoping some day to see their work on the shelves — and fantasizing about the time that they return to the place as a celebrated author, signing books for their one-time coworkers. Former Tattered Cover employee Matthew Sullivan is living that dream with his debut novel, Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, a dark mystery set in — how about that? — an eclectic downtown Denver bookstore.
The novel revolves around a young woman's investigation of a store patron's suicide, which forces her to revisit a notorious tragedy from her own childhood; as in many classic whodunits, the two cases turn out to be one case. Along the way, there are glimpses of the emerging LoDo of the 1990s and some evocative scenes dealing with the kind of eccentric folks who work at places like the TC (one of the employees is archly named Plath) and those who use it as a refuge from the mean streets. Our protagonist, Lydia, calls her homeless customers "Book Frogs," and her curiosity about how one came to hang himself in the Bright Ideas Bookstore sets the narrative in motion.
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Sullivan is a graduate of the University of Idaho's MFA program, and the novel's well-constructed plot has the feel of being workshopped quite a bit, in order to give mystery buffs the obligatory red herrings and misdirection. At the same time, there isn't as much actually going on at the Bright Ideas as one might hope, and the book's lighter touches seem at odds with the grim subject matter at its core. Despite the sentimentalizing of the Book Frogs, the characters and the narrative struck this reader as more pre-fabricated than felt. Still, there are passages that stay with you, like this encounter between Lydia and one wayfarer of the streets:
"Hi—" he started to say, but his voice was interrupted by vomit. Lydia knelt next to him and wiped his cheek with her sleeve. She asked again if he was okay and he sighed hi and gently closed his eyes. She put her hand on his shoulder and looked out at the traffic lights bobbing on their wires, and then she heard herself talking about David's collusion with her intrusive father and this lost city of her childhood, and how she'd spent more time hiding beneath sinks than anyone she knew, maybe anyone in history, and she vowed to read To the Lighthouse again and to give Gravity's Rainbow another chance—"
Sullivan, who now lives in the Northwest, will be signing books and discussing his work tonight at the Tattered Cover at 2626 East Colfax Avenue; refreshments are at 6:30, the grand event at 7 p.m. For more information, call 303-322-7727 or visit the TC website.