THE STOCKHOLM OCTAVO by Karen Engelmann

New York: Ecco, 2012. $26.99. (Available in paperback, Kindle, and iBooks)

THE STOCKHOLM OCTAVO is not a conventional historical mystery or even crime novel; rather, it involves intrigue and conspiracy. Not creating a modern drama played against a historical backdrop, à la Hollywood, Karen Engelmann makes 18th century Stockholm and the 18th century obsessions with cards and folding fans come alive. Engelmann’s characters think, act, and behave in 18th century fashion, however bizarre, illogical, or cruel that may appear to 21st century readers. 

Emil Larsson has worked his way up from poverty; he wants to become a Customs sekretaire in Stockholm, the red cape insuring recognition, respectability, and salary. He also loves card play. His skill at cards earns him partnership with Mrs. Sophia Sparrow, a Franco-Swedish hostess of exclusive gambling rooms. From this partnership, he wins sufficient funds to purchase his position of sekretaire, with its stable income and plenty of opportunity for venality. After his superior insists he take a wife, Mrs. Sparrow has a vision for him and lays an Octavo for him--in a series of eight meetings, eight cards are laid, each representing a person important to Emil’s quest for love and connexion. (She also lays an Octavo for herself, and naturally, it involves France and is connected to Emil’s Octavo.) Emil, being something of a naïf, continuously misinterprets the cards and the people he meets. Some of these mistakes are comic; some, tragic. 

Emil comes into the orbit of the Uzanne, a beautiful Swedish aristocrat whose refinement and reactionary ambition set the conspiracy in motion. She has no interest in King Gustav III’s reforming monarchy, preferring power and authority remain with the aristocracy. Subtly, yet forcefully, the Uzanne deploys the feminine arts of power, especially the silent, flirtatious  language of the folding fan. Many of the Uzanne’s connexions become Emil’s--like the cross-dressing cardmaker who pretends to be his clients, the female apothecary fleeing the threat of a terrible marriage and practicing on cats, the brilliant fan maker who is a Mason and who understands the Divine Geometry, the fan maker’s pretty French Catholic wife. Eventually, Emil wakes up, interprets the connexions correctly, and works to thwart the Uzanne’s nefarious scheme. 

Intrigue and conspiracy do not scream or even call for attention. Like espionage, they are quiet, subtle, elliptical. So it is with THE STOCKHOLM OCTAVO. Not surprisingly, since Engelmann was once an art director for IKEA, the message is in the design. One force is the Uzanne, armed with her fans; the equal and opposite force, Mrs. Sparrow with her cards. It is a deliberate reference to Newton, whose PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA ungirds so much of Enlightenment thinking.

The fan was a weapon in the refined arsenal of an 18th century lady. It was an extension of her hand, of her being as the small sword was for the gentleman. It sent and received messages deemed too delicate or risqué for words. A woman could draw a lover to her, send him away, or plan an assignation under her husband’s nose and across a ballroom. She could also have the last word in an argument she could not win orally. It was definitely a weapon designed for intrigue. After all, what is the difference between an assignation and an assassination?

Cartomancy, the use of cards for divination, of fortune telling, has existed almost as long as playing cards themselves. Card playing was endemic in the 18th century; whist, a forerunner of bridge, was a particular favorite, and huge sums of money could be won or lost. Cartomancy hit its peak in the late 18th century, with the publication of two books, both by Frenchmen, one in 1770 and the other in 1781. Together, according to Engelmann in an interview with Foyles (http://www.foyles.co.uk/Karen-Engelmann), these books provided the basis for professional cartomancy. It should surprise no one that mathematics should be the language for explaining the relationships amongst the cards and the patterns. 

(Many cultures and religions in the world practice numerology. It can be found in Kabbalah as well as Chinese divination and Western mysticism. For both the Chinese and Westerners, three is a perfect number; for the Chinese, nine is even better, for it is the square of three.)

For all its subtlety--this is not a novel for the impatient--it is not without its flaws. The first quarter of the book involves the set up; although necessary to understanding, it could have been tighter. Once the Octavo of characters is set, however, the story takes off. Though the alternation between Emil’s story--he’s the lynchpin--and an omniscient narrator might confuse or annoy some readers, it works well and keeps the reader grounded in the consequences of the choices made by the characters. Engelmann’s use of intercutting to reach the climax is superb; however, the ending, like the world, comes in with a whimper, not bang. Many readers will, no doubt, find that disappointing.

Copyright KG Whitehurst
webmaster: kgw@KGWhitehurst.com