Could Grisham's heist of Fitzgerald manuscripts happen?

NEW YORK • John Grisham wrote his latest page-turner without visiting the scene of the crime.

He said so himself. He explained in an author's note at the end of Camino Island, published in June, that he did not want to inspire "some misguided soul" to try a caper like the one that opens the best-selling book - stealing F. Scott Fitzgerald's manuscripts from the library at Princeton University.

Fitzgerald is one of Princeton's demigods. He dreamt of the Gothic spires and gargoyles on its campus long before he dreamt of East Egg and the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. "From the first, he loved Princeton - its lazy beauty, its half-grasped significance," he wrote of one of the characters in This Side Of Paradise. He might as well have been writing about himself.

So when it comes to his manuscripts, donated to the library by his daughter in 1950 with the rest of his papers, Grisham put it perfectly on Page 7 of Camino Island. "To Princeton, they were priceless," he wrote. But not to the thieves in Camino Island - and a seemingly respectable bookstore owner.

Grisham imagined a "secure basement vault" and an assistant librarian who admitted he had seen the original manuscript of Fitzgerald's This Side Of Paradise only once, with a famous scholar who was not allowed to touch it. Grisham imagined thick metal doors, alarms, a surveillance camera, some black spray paint to put it out of action - and a blowtorch and a drill. He also imagined a room on the second floor, where scholars worked, and stairs leading down to "B2" (Basement 2). But how good was his imagination?

"Oh, my goodness," said Mr Stephen Ferguson, the acting associate university librarian for rare books and special collections. "From my point of view, we don't want any emulators of the first chapter." He then referred a call about Camino Island to a spokesman for the library, who said library officials would not talk about the heist thriller.

But just as there are people who spend time in the off-limits places in the Pentagon and Fort Knox, there are people who spend time with the manuscripts in the Princeton library - scholars. And there is Fitzgerald's granddaughter, Ms Eleanor Lanahan. They know their Fitzgerald. They also know their Grisham. "It's clear he's not familiar with the Princeton library," Ms Lanahan said.

Making off with Fitzgerald's manuscripts would be more difficult than in Camino Island. There would be the question of what to steal. The library's finding aid for the Fitzgerald papers, a guide to the holdings, is 148 pages long. And, in contrast to the single box for each novel in Camino Island, the manuscripts for Tender Is The Night fill several boxes, the finding aid shows. The manuscripts for The Last Tycoon take up at least two.

Then there is the question of where to go to steal them. Not even Ms Lanahan has seen the vault, or wherever it is inside Firestone Library, where the manuscripts are kept. She said she had seen the manuscript of The Great Gatsby only once. It happened at a gathering she arranged. The big moment, when she was shown the manuscript, occurred in a reading room.

Pennsylvania State University Professor James L.W. West III has dug deeper into the Fitzgerald papers. In the 1970s, he discovered a forgotten story from the 1930s among them. He said the Princeton library is "really not at all" like the one in Camino Island, a sentiment echoed by Ms Anne Margaret Daniel, who was the editor of I'd Die For You And Other Lost Stories by Fitzgerald.

"That's one of the bright moments about Camino Island for me, the level to which it is purely fiction," she said. "I put my feet up and romped through it because it's so absolutely would-and-could-neverhappen." Camino Island postulates that scholars can simply call the library and say: "I'll be there next Tuesday." Ms Daniel said the real arrangements are not that loose.

"One cannot do that," she said flatly, describing a process that starts online, with a request for material. And then there is the security system, which she guessed is "infinitely more sophisticated".

"However," she added, "if Grisham had imagined the kind of system that I imagine exists at Princeton, there would be no novel, because there could be no theft of the manuscripts."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2017, with the headline 'Could Grisham's heist of Fitzgerald manuscripts happen?'. Print Edition | Subscribe