cover image Secrets of the Camera Obscura

Secrets of the Camera Obscura

Chronicle Books, David Knowles. Chronicle Books, $10.95 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-8118-0655-8

The second of this publisher's pair of new novellas (see The Forty Fathom Bank , above), Knowles's disturbing debut explores the strange spell cast by the camera obscura, a room-size camera whose reflections cause dark behavior among those who explore its unique perspective. Part murder mystery, part historical flashback, the story is told by the camera's caretaker, a recluse who documents the camera's past in a journal while charging a minimal sum to tourists who wish to enter the device. When a young Italian woman who is a regular visitor to the giant camera is decapitated on a nearby cliff, the caretaker becomes suspicious of a gentleman who made her acquaintance inside the camera. Woven into the narrator's recitations of suspicion, guilt and jealousy is the account of the camera's bizarre past, which involves its two Chinese inventors, Leonardo da Vinci, who refined and perfected it, and Vermeer, who used the camera's perspective in his paintings. Knowles ably juggles story and premise, capturing the narrator's Dostoyevskian guilt through a terse, agitated interior monologue. Though the history proves sometimes difficult to follow, Knowles surmounts this minor flaw to deliver an intriguing set piece effectively overlaid with an atmosphere of menace and mystery. (June)