Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

A Novel

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About The Book

Goodreads Debut Author of the Month and an Indie Next Pick!

“Sullivan’s debut is a page-turner featuring a heroine bookseller who solves a cold case with clues from books—what is not to love?” —Nina George, author of The Little French Bistro, and the New York Times bestselling The Little Paris Bookshop

When a bookshop patron commits suicide, his favorite store clerk must unravel the puzzle he left behind in this fiendishly clever debut novel from an award-winning short story writer.

Lydia Smith lives her life hiding in plain sight. A clerk at the Bright Ideas bookstore, she keeps a meticulously crafted existence among her beloved books, eccentric colleagues, and the BookFrogs—the lost and lonely regulars who spend every day marauding the store’s overwhelmed shelves.

But when Joey Molina, a young, beguiling BookFrog, kills himself in the bookstore’s upper room, Lydia’s life comes unglued. Always Joey’s favorite bookseller, Lydia has been bequeathed his meager worldly possessions. Trinkets and books; the detritus of a lonely, uncared for man. But when Lydia flips through his books she finds them defaced in ways both disturbing and inexplicable. They reveal the psyche of a young man on the verge of an emotional reckoning. And they seem to contain a hidden message. What did Joey know? And what does it have to do with Lydia?

As Lydia untangles the mystery of Joey’s suicide, she unearths a long buried memory from her own violent childhood. Details from that one bloody night begin to circle back. Her distant father returns to the fold, along with an obsessive local cop, and the Hammerman, a murderer who came into Lydia’s life long ago and, as she soon discovers, never completely left. Bedazzling, addictive, and wildly clever, Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is a heart-pounding mystery that perfectly captures the intellect and eccentricity of the bookstore milieu and will keep you guessing until the very last page.​

Excerpt

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore CHAPTER ONE
Lydia heard the distant flap of paper wings as the first book fell from its shelf. She glanced up from the register, head tilted, and imagined that a sparrow had flown through an open window again and was circling the store’s airy upper floors, trying to find its way out.

A few seconds later another book fell. This time it thudded more than flapped, and she was sure it wasn’t a bird.

It was just past midnight, the bookstore was closing, and the final customers were checking out. Lydia was alone at the register, scanning a stack of paperback parenting books being bought by a teenage girl with pitted cheeks and peeling lips. The girl paid in cash and Lydia smiled at her but didn’t say anything, didn’t ask what the girl was doing alone at a bookstore this late on a Friday night, didn’t ask when she was due. When the girl got her change, she met Lydia’s eyes for a moment, then rushed out without any bookmarks.

Another book fell, definitely somewhere upstairs.

One of Lydia’s comrades, a balding guy named Ernest who walked like a Muppet but always looked sad, was standing by the front door, guiding the night’s final customers into Lower Downtown.

“Are you hearing that?” Lydia said from across the store, but her voice was too quiet and anyway Ernest was occupied. She watched him unlock the door he’d just locked to let in a clubbing couple who looked drunk.

“They need to pee,” Ernest said, shrugging in Lydia’s direction.

Outside, a few scruffy BookFrogs lingered on the flagstone sidewalk, zipping up backpacks and duffels, drinking from gallon jugs of water they’d refilled in the bathroom. One had a pulp crime paperback crammed in his back pocket. Another had a pencil on a string tied to his belt loop. They stood together but none of them spoke, and one by one they slumped separately into the city, off to sleep in a run-down basement in Capitol Hill, or on a bench in Union Station, or in the sticky cold of Denver’s alleys.

Lydia heard another faint flapping. Definitely a falling book, followed by a few more in rapid succession: flap-flap-flap. The store was otherwise quiet.

“Upstairs empty?” she said to Ernest.

“Just Joey,” Ernest said, but his eyes were fixed on the corner of zines and pamphlets that flanked the bathrooms where the drunk couple had just disappeared. “Do you think they’re screwing in there?”

“He knows we’re closed?”

“Joey?” he said. “You never know what Joey knows. He asked after you earlier, by the way. It may have been the longest conversation we’ve ever had. ‘Seen Lydia?’ I was touched.”

Most days Lydia made a point of tracking Joey down wherever he’d settled into the store—a corner table in the coffee shop, or the former church pew in the Spirituality section, or even under the Story Tree in Kids—to see what he was reading and how he was feeling and whether any odd jobs had come his way. She had a soft spot for the guy. But tonight she’d gotten caught in the store’s after-dinner rush and never tracked him down.

“Lyle is with him, right?” Lydia said. Though decades apart in age, Joey and Lyle were all but inseparable, like two halves of one smart and awkward beast.

“No Lyle. Not tonight. Last I saw, Joey was all alone in History. He had masking tape on his fingers.”

“On his fingers?”

“I think he must’ve cut himself or burned himself. Made bandages with Kleenex and tape.” He looked at his watch. “He’s not a crackhead, is he? They’re always burning fingers.”

Lydia heard another fluttering book. The store occupied three cavernous floors, and when it was quiet like this, sound traveled between them as if through an atrium. She imagined Joey all alone lobbing books up there, some kind of bibliomancy or I Ching toss. She’d be the one to stay late and reshelve them.

“Count the drawer for me?”

“Goddamned couple,” Ernest said, coming around to the register without unpeeling his eyes from the bathrooms. “They’ve gotta be screwing in there.”

Lydia crossed the store’s gritty floors and headed up the wide, tiered staircase that reached through the building like a fattened spine. Ernest had gone through earlier and turned off most of the overhead lights upstairs, so she felt as if she were climbing into an attic.

“Joey?”

The second floor was quiet, shelf upon shelf of books standing still. She continued to the third.

“Joey?”

Joey was the youngest of the BookFrogs, and by far Lydia’s favorite. This wouldn’t be the first time that she or one of her bookselling comrades had done a final sweep at closing and found Joey knocking books off the shelves, searching for a title that may or may not have actually existed. His glossy hair would be draped over his eyes, and he’d be wearing black jeans and a black knit sweater with the collar just low enough to see the top of his tattooed chest. The wooden floors around his feet would be spread with books about subjects as far-reaching as his thoughts: Sasquatch sightings and the Federal Reserve, Masonic rites and chaos theory. He was a shattered young man, Lydia often thought, haunted but harmless—a dust bunny blowing through the corners of the store.

She liked having him around.

“Joey?”

The third floor was dim and peaceful. Lydia stepped into a familiar warren of tall wooden shelves and followed their angles and branches into different alcoves and sections, each holding a chair or a couch, a table or a bench: Psychology, Self-Help, Religion, Travel, History.

Something squeaked.

“Last call, Joey.”

When she stepped into the Western History alcove, she could feel her eyes trying to shut out what she was seeing: Joey, hovering in the air, swinging like a pendulum. A long ratcheted strap was threaded over a ceiling beam and looped around his neck. Lydia’s body sprung with terror, but instead of running away she was suddenly running toward him, toward Joey, and hugging his lanky legs and trying to hoist him up. She heard someone’s scream curdle through the store and realized it was her own.

Lydia’s cheek pressed into Joey’s thigh and his jeans were warm with urine. A lump in his pocket smelled of chocolate and she assumed it was a knot of melted Kisses, swiped from the bowl on the coffee shop counter. His hands were clenched into quiet fists and she could see the masking-tape bandages on three or four of his fingertips, but she wouldn’t look up again at the popped purple sockets of his eyes, nor the foamy saliva rolling down his chin, nor the blue swelling of his lips.

She could see the cemetery of books that had flapped to the floor as Joey had climbed the shelves, and the others he’d shoved aside to create footholds as he threaded the strap through the ceiling, and still others that had dropped as he’d tried to kick his feet back to stop himself from dying. By now she’d locked her hands together on the far side of his thighs and was trying to lift him up, but her sneakers kept slipping on the wooden floor, and each time she slipped the ratcheted strap cinched tighter around his neck. She must have stopped screaming because a ringing silence suddenly swallowed everything when she saw, a few inches from her face, poking up from Joey’s front pocket, a folded photograph of her.

Lydia.

As a child.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Lydia Smith lives her life hiding in plain sight. A clerk at the Bright Ideas bookstore, she keeps a meticulously crafted existence among her beloved books, eccentric colleagues, and the BookFrogs—the lost and lonely regulars who spend every day marauding the store’s overwhelmed shelves.

But when Joey Molina, a young, beguiling BookFrog, kills himself in the bookstore’s upper room, Lydia’s life comes unglued. Always Joey’s favorite bookseller, Lydia has been bequeathed his meager worldly possessions. Trinkets and books; the detritus of a lonely, uncared for man. But when Lydia flips through his books she finds them defaced in ways both disturbing and inexplicable. They reveal the psyche of a young man on the verge of an emotional reckoning. And they seem to contain a hidden message. What did Joey know? And what does it have to do with Lydia?

As Lydia untangles the mystery of Joey’s suicide, she unearths a long buried memory from her own violent childhood. Details from that one bloody night begin to circle back. Her distant father returns to the fold, along with an obsessive local cop, and the Hammerman, a murderer who came into Lydia’s life long ago and, as she soon discovers, never completely left.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. While talking with Raj, Lydia reminisces about her relationship with Gas ‘n Donuts: “but her nostalgia for the place had never been strong enough to outweigh her dread of dredging up the past” (138). How is Lydia’s relationship with the past presented, and how do you see it evolve over the course of the novel?

2. What were your initial impressions of the characters, specifically Lydia’s father? How did these impressions change over the course of the novel?

3. As Lydia assess her own muddied memories of the Hammerman, she visits Moberg, who has long suspected that Lydia’s father was the murderer. Hurting and suspicious, Lydia also seems to believe that her father might be behind the murders. Did you find yourself believing that her father might be guilty? At what point did you realize it was Raj’s father who had committed the murders?

4. Sullivan weaves a tight web of a story with characters whose lives are significantly intertwined yet all of these characters feel acute loneliness and isolation. Explore these themes with your group. What other themes do you see at work?

5. Mrs. Patel feels immense guilt about the O’Toole murders, believing that “their blood was on [her] hands” (302). Once she learns of Joey’s suicide, she experiences further emotional upheaval. Take a moment to think about the “justice” of Mrs. Patel’s final act. Did it take you by surprise? How did it resonate with you?

6. Lydia lives her life hiding in plain sight among books; discuss with your group this aspect of her character along with the one of the quotes Sullivan selected for the epigraph:

“All words are masks, and the lovelier they are, the more they are meant to conceal”

--Steven Millhauser, “August Eschenburg”

7. Lydia’s familiarity with books and the bookstore setting are crucial to the plot of the novel. Discuss with your group the significance of Joey’s cutouts in books as a means of communication. Contemplate what metaphorical gesture Sullivan might be making.

8. Using the quote below as a starting point, discuss Lydia’s drive to uncover the mystery. How do your own philosophical ideals align with these philosophies?

“But then not having answers had always been the point: the point of her childhood, the product of her hours in the library, the sum of [her father’s] philosophy when she was a little girl. You leave yourself open to answers, he’d always taught her. You keep turning pages, you finish chapters, you find the next book. You seek and you seek and you seek, and no matter how tough things become, you never settle” (208).

9. Despite her long-term relationship with David, Lydia is still “fully aware of the one thing she could never reveal: her night with the Hammerman” (137). Once Lydia discovers that David has been communicating with her father, and he knows about the night of the murders she feels betrayed (213). Did you imagine that Lydia and David would ever recover from the secrecy? What values do you place on a relationship?

10. Sullivan ends the novel with Raj and Lydia happening upon a television show about the O’Toole murders and “Little Lydia,” ending the novel with this line:

“And though [Lydia] wanted to close her eyes and feel the promise of this moment, she couldn’t help but look beyond his shoulder, hoping to see for one last time the girl he’d just erased from the screen.”

Where do you think Sullivan leaves us with Lydia and her relationship to the murders and to herself?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is filled with references to books of all kinds. Read an excerpt from one of the many books mentioned in the novel. Consider reading simultaneously the books that Joey pairs together such as The Crying of Lot 49 and Wise Blood or Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Alice in Wonderland.

2. The description of the Bright Ideas Bookstore was based on Sullivan’s own experience working at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, Colorado. Look up images of the interior of the bookstore. Does the description of the wooden rafters and staircases remind you of the novel?

3. Read other book-related mysteries like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan and Booked to Die by John Dunning. How do they compare?

About The Author

Photograph by Lucid Concepts

Matthew Sullivan received his MFA from the University of Idaho and has been a resident writer at Yaddo, Centrum, and the Vermont Studio Center. His short stories have been awarded the Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize and the Florida Review Editor’s Prize for Fiction and have been published in many journals, including The Chattahoochee Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Fugue, Evansville Review, and 580-Split. In addition to working for years at Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver and at Brookline Booksmith in Boston, he currently teaches writing, literature, and film at Big Bend Community College in the high desert of Washington State. The author of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, he is married to a librarian and has two children.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (June 2017)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501116841

Raves and Reviews

"With Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, Matthew Sullivan has written—with great panache and suspense—a smart, twisty crime novel filled with compelling characters set in a world that book-lovers will adore."—Jess Walter, # 1 New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Ruins

"This book ticked all the boxes for me: an engaging heroine, an intriguing premise, interesting characters and a plot that involved books, readers and the very darkest human passions. A fantastic, assured debut."—Elly Griffiths, author of The Crossing Places

 

“There is a clever, erudite puzzle plot in this bookish mystery, along with whip-smart writing. Matthew Sullivan’s debut is stylish and entertaining.”—Ellen Crosby, author of The Champagne Conspiracy

"An intriguingly dark, twisty story and eccentric characters make this book a standout."--Kirkus Reviews

“Quirky characters and a keen sense of place distinguish this multi-generational tale of abandonment, desperation, and betrayal . . . inventive and intricately plotted.” Publishers Weekly, starred review

“This quirky debut novel will have particular appeal for puzzle solvers and booklovers.” Booklist

“Though darker than other beloved novels set in bookstores, this story will appeal to fans of Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and Katarina Bivald’s The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. Mystery readers will also appreciate the clever connections between the characters and the crimes.” Library Journal

“Personally, I couldn’t resist Matthew Sullivan’s Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, an appealing first novel....The oddball characters and layered plot make this puzzle mystery both charming and challenging.” —Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

“A strong debut. . . powerful, intricate tale of broken friendship and family loyalties.” The Seattle Times

“Twisty and dark, Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is a remarkable debut that will leave readers unsettled and probably yearning to pay a visit to their local bookstore.” —BookPage

“Shocking, charming and thrilling . . . With compelling characters and rich descriptions, Sullivan’s writing is spot-on. Sullivan nails it, delivering a captivating conflict plus masterfully executed prose.”Associated Press

“Readers will find that Sullivan had a bright idea, indeed.” St. Louis Post Dispatch

“A quick, enjoyable read.” The Muskogee Phoenix

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