Percival Bartlebooth, a reclusive Parisian residing at No. 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, has devoted his entire life and considerable fortune to a project conceived when he was only twenty years old. Casting about for a purpose in life, Bartlebooth hit on the following: First, he would devote ten years to the study of watercolor painting. Next, he would spend twenty years sailing around the world, painting a watercolor at each of five hundred different seaports; the finished paintings would then be mailed to a master craftsman, who would turn them into complicated jigsaw puzzles of 750 pieces each. Finally, Bartlebooth would return to Paris and devote another twenty years to reassembling the puzzles systematically. Upon completion, each will be mailed to the seaport it depicts, where it will be dipped into a detergent solution that instantly erases the image. All goes well until an art buyer for an international chain of hotels under development by Marvel Comics conspires to buy the completed puzzles before they can be destroyed. (This aggressive buyer has just closed a deal that involves dismantling Oxford University’s Exeter College brick by brick and shipping it to a hotel site in Mozambique.)

Bartlebooth’s puzzle-maker also lives at Rue Simon-Crubellier. One of his obsessions is to cover a wooden chest with microscopic carvings illustrating the principal scenes of Jules Verne’s book THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. Another resident is a mathematical butler who...

(The entire section is 435 words.)