Who started the craze for lost-treasure tales? Reading "The Geographer's Library," (Penguin Press, 374 pp., $24. 95), I began to unwind...

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Who started the craze for lost-treasure tales? Reading “The Geographer’s Library,” (Penguin Press, 374 pp., $24.95), I began to unwind the spool of literary history and stopped (for fear of going all the way back to Jason and his Golden Fleece) at “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson.

On the 20th-21st century portion of the rewind, there’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (a movie, not a book) and its celluloid successor, “National Treasure.” In the contemporary book world there’s the improbable commercial success of “The Da Vinci Code” and its imitator, “The Rule of Four.” There’s gold to be mined in stories of ancient icons freighted with mythical and/or religious symbolism, and so we have Jon Fasman’s tale of Paul Tomm, a reporter at a small-town paper whose own treasure hunt begins when he’s assigned to write an obituary of a reclusive professor.

Fasman, who writes for the online version of The Economist in London, displays a talent for dialogue, a vivid imagination, evidence of a splendid liberal-arts education and substantial time spent in the former Soviet Union. What’s not on display in “The Geographer’s Library” is the guidance of a gimlet-eyed editor with a ruthless cutting knife.

Ruthless editors are not even a narrative feature. Tomm works for Art Rolen, a newsman who has spent most of his life on big-city papers but now runs a small-town New England weekly.

Rolen is a mellow fellow indeed — he forswears all the many stories Tomm ought to be writing to fill up the paper to let him pursue the obit, letting the deadline recede into infinity as the obit assignment turns into the investigation of a suspicious death.

Tomm is an appealing creation, a young man in a rudderless post-graduate funk but possessed of humor, lurking ambition and the guts to penetrate the gloom of a really nasty New England bar. Some of the secondary characters, notably the rogue small-town policeman Joe Jadid, are almost worth the price of reading through the rest of “The Geographer’s Library.”

Author appearance

Jon Fasman will read from “The Geographer’s Library,” 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St. in Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

For there is a lot of “the rest.” Fasman intersperses Tomm’s story with descriptions of 15 items stolen from the professor’s house, a cabinet of curiosities all involved with alchemy, the medieval art of transformation. They all have a story, written in the form of an evaluation of their worth for possible sale or auction.

It’s an ambitious structure, and these accounts give Fasman license to display his knowledge of just about everything (other than the realities of working at a small-town newspaper). But there’s a lack of narrative momentum in these stories-within-a-story, and at 15-plus installments, it’s just too much stuff. Unlike “The Da Vinci Code,” which played with a belief system that almost everyone has been touched by (Christianity), “The Geographer’s Library” relies on a reader’s fascination in alchemy to sustain interest. It’s a gamble, given that alchemy fell out of favor a few centuries ago.

Meanwhile, let’s return to that ruthless editor so sorely missed. There are some true fingernails-on-the-blackboard similes that block the narrative flow like … oh, never mind. Such as this one: “Professor Jadid” (uncle of the aforesaid Joe) “gazed out the window. We were right at the edge of downtown, and in the late-afternoon winter light, the buildings looked like a jumble of cinnamon-toast Legos, mellow and sweet.” Crunch!

Fasman has a boatload of talent and almost certainly will be given the opportunity for another book. Let’s hope he either hires that editor or becomes his own — in reducing the stuff of literary treasure to its essence, sometimes what’s left out is as important as what gets in.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com