The Book Thief

on July 23, 2010 in Misc

If Layla ever finds herself alone in a room with William Jacques, she would do very, very bad things to him.

446courtroomJacques is a 41-year-old graduate of Cambridge who has been called Britain’s most prolific thief of rare and precious books.  His thefts include first editions by Isaac Newton and Galileo.  Just this month he was convicted in a London court for the second time and sent to prison for three years.

Layla would have given him a lot more than three years’ worth of injuries.

book thief

She’d hurt Jacques not only because he has stolen an estimated 500 extremely rare antiquarian books worth more than £1 million and dating back to 1514, and not only because he devastated the special collections of British leading libraries, thus taking them away from historians and other scholars.  He has also, because of his “arrogance, greed and an obsession with money,” damaged some of those books in order to disguise their origin and sell them more easily, usually to auction houses across Europe..

You hurt irreplaceable antiquities, Layla hurt you.

I don’t think I’ve ever really described in this blog what Layla Daltry does.  Quite simply, she’s a very well paid antiquities hunter, one who loves rare, precious written works and is “addicted to the hunt.”

Here’s a longer explanation:

medieval_libraryAs an expert in manuscripts, books, letters, and just about anything written in Europe from the fall of the late Roman classical period up to the Enlightenment, she could pick and choose her work as a field agent for museums, top auction houses, and well-heeled collectors.  Armed with their names, she gained entrée into the private libraries of great estates.  She could investigate their rare works to track down even more precious, elusive antiquities.  She uncovered the provenance of medieval illuminated manuscripts and informed the museums interested in buying them, or the auction houses that wished to sell them, whether or not they had been stolen or forged…

Of course, Layla carefully concealed from her clients the methods she sometimes used.  She never told them that she often tracked down stolen works by befriending unsavory people with questionable jobs.  Or how she crossed paths with tomb raiders and black marketers and bartered with them for information.  She never let slip how she knew better than to contact the authorities once she learned that this thuggish industrialist or that unscrupulous banker had arranged to have an artifact stolen and now jealously possessed it.


The very wealthy know how to get away with anything, hence matters would only get messy if she tipped off Interpol.  Thus she didn’t explain to her clients that, with the help of a former lover, she had developed the skills of the finest cat thief.  Getting into very high upper floors, scampering across rooftops, slipping past holes in security systems – that’s what she was really good at…

So that’s basically what Layla does, and that’s her passion.  Waddya think?

Also, if any of you are writing thrillers or mysteries along a similar vein as The Compass Master, or if you’re just interested in art theft, scams and swindles and high-end auction  houses, I found a great resource.  It’s  Look under the archive for the category of “Auction Houses and stolen objects,” ( and you’ll find plenty of cool stuff that could inspire an entire novel or screenplay.

Have a cool weekend.

4 Responses to “The Book Thief”

  1. Ben says:

    That is so crazy! For some reason, I love reading about incredible thefts and try to invision what must have taken place. People like that are amazing… of course they are also a bit messed up, too. But still.

  2. Helena says:

    Ben – Yes, thieves like Jacques are messed up. But at the other end of the scale are glamorous cat burglars. I’d LOVE, just once in my life, to be a roof-trotting cat burglar and steal stuff like expensive jewelry from wealthy slime balls. Say, the CEO of BP.

  3. Robert L. Read says:

    I like what Layla does.

    I have a confession, which is lame because it is so far from being realized. I have a fantasy of somehow adding to the collection of “Lost Works” by finding them. Of the great books that have survived from antiqutiy, I believe we have only perhaps 1/4th, because we know of so many works that are mentioned in extant works that we don’t have — and of course we don’t know what how many works may have been mentioned in those works.

    I suppse the Ark of the Covenant is a great treasure, but really finding even a single lost work could add immesely to history.

    I wonder what is just lying around in a warehouse or buried underground and not rotted to pieces.

    It would seem that the act of finding these lost stories could be the source of many stories—I hope Layla helps us in that respect. It might even be that Layla, as a fictionaly character, could spur interest in the conservation and hunting of such knowledge, and thus indirectly enrich mankind. (Many great computer scientists were inspired by the science fiction of the mid-century.)

    I am skeptical that we really understand what society was like 2,000 years ago. For example, we know a great deal about Roman war gear, because it was written about fairly extensively—but I have not been able to figure out how the Romans managed to manufacture a consistent set of arms for legions of 5,000 men. You couldn’t just place an order for 5,000 swords and 5,000 helmets—or could you?

    Keep up the good work Helena. Maybe you should go to Europe and poke around an old library to get more of a feel for this kind of work. I wish you had enough dough to do that.

  4. Helena says:

    Robert – I LOVE antiquities and mysteries and discoveries about the ancients! And I absolutely have the same fantasy you have of finding lost great works (Raiders of the Lost Ark is my fave rave movie of all time). Of course Layla is the extension of that fantasy: She can do with her life what I’m not doing. My one comfort is that, as I’ve written before in this blog, there many amateurs who train themselves in archeology and history and go out and make great discoveries. So maybe there’s hope for you and me.

    You’re also absolutely right about only a small number of books surviving antiquity. Most didn’t survive, and that’s why discoveries like the Archimedes Palimpsest was so thrilling — lost works by the great mathematician were found in a medieval prayerbook. Then there’s the Antikythera mechanism, the ancient (as in ca. 150 B.C.) machine used to predict astronomical positions. We had no idea such a sophisticated calculator had even existed before sponge divers found portions of it in the twentieth century. Like Wikipedia says, “Technological artifacts of similar complexity did not reappear until the 14th century.” Think of it — an ancient device that was at least 14 centuries ahead of its time! Of course I get excited!

    If I had the dough, Robert, I would indeed go off on a world-wide jaunt in search of antiquities. That’s why my second favorite fantasy is becoming independently wealthy. Maybe the same could happen to you.