While at Bouchercon, I attended a panel called Hot Ice: Caper novels, which probably doesn’t surprise many of you—my love of caper novels and characters with questionable ethics isn’t exactly a secret, and my own WIP more or less falls in this category as well.
I’m pretty sure there’s a correlation there, somewhere . . .
The entire discussion was amazing, and afterwards, I went to the book room to search for books from each of the panelists. One of the authors was Chris Ewan, an English author who writes the award-winning and highly popular Good Thief series, about which I knew next to nothing, except it was about a good thief, Mr. Ewan wrote it, and the first one was set in the Netherlands somewhere.*
The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam was tricky to find—in a ballroomfull of bookcases, there was one copy left, and I had to crawl under a display to reach it before someone else spotted it. I wasn’t sure at the time why I was driven to such lengths—I’m not built for moving under anything lower than a standard doorframe and I’m a librarian, so it’s not as if this was my last opportunity to lay hands on a copy. But I suspect now that I’m bibliopsychic.
Because this is a fantastic book.
Charles Howard is a suspense author who moves from city to city writing novels about a master thief. This is a clear case of writing what one knows, as Charlie himself is a master thief who has not given up his day job.**
Charlie is in Amsterdam, trying to spackle a major plot hole in his latest manuscript, when he’s contacted by an American who offers him a substantial fee to liberate two small monkey figurines from two empty and unguarded residences. Charlie, who has a professional’s suspicion of a sure thing, initially refuses—but his curiosity overrules his common sense. The job isn’t as easy as advertised—go figure—but in the end, he gets the goods.
Unfortunately, before he can deliver the figurines and collect payment, his client is beaten and left for dead in a bathtub. And now, with the previous owners of the monkeys on his tail and suspicious police detectives on his back, plot holes are the least of Charlie’s problems . . .
I started reading Amsterdam at breakfast the morning after I bought it, and read it between panels—and on the way to panels—all day, singing its praises to everyone who asked and convincing any acquisition librarians I met to put it on their lists, if they hadn’t already. I also
bullied talked at least two people into ordering it on Amazon through their smart phones.
And, as luck would have it, met Mr. Ewan outside the bar that evening, where he graciously signed my copy while listening to me
gush at length about tell him how much I enjoyed it and why. I’m not sure I was at all coherent by that point—it wasn’t booze, it was adrenaline, I swear—so this is what I wanted to tell him:
Amsterdam is fast-paced, the dialogue is snappy, and the mystery is good. With some mysteries, I read to the end to find out if I’m right and with others, I’m enjoying myself too much to care—this book is a nice blend of both. While I suspected one or two of the bad guys once or twice, I wasn’t entirely certain until the end . . . and one of the conspirators escaped me completely, but logically.*** I like that.
Charlie is a wonderfully flawed hero, a competent and skilled man who nevertheless makes realistic mistakes—including one or two with a young woman who may or may not be up to her eyeballs in, well, something. But what caught my attention from the first few paragraphs is that he’s also a writer. Although the man makes more money from stealing than from royalties, he considers himself as much of a writer as a thief, and works hard to write the best books he can—he even willingly, if reluctantly, goes through the hell of revisions and edits.
And I adore his agent, Victoria, to whom Charlie has entrusted the truth about his nefarious present and who treats his problems with the same patience and logic with which she tackles the narrative hiccups in his novels. I hope to see more of her in future books—or hear from her, since she and Charlie haven’t yet met face-to-face—and I’d really, really like to know if she’s based on an actual agent who might be taking on any new clients (cough, ahem).
Something else impressed me: at one point, both Charlie and another character go off to run errands without the reader and without explanation, but in such a way that I knew whatever they were doing would be important later.
This sort of thing is dicey, since it depends on the patience and trust of the reader and more often than not is announced like a lead weight hitting the page (“ATTENTION!! MARK THIS SPOT! AUTHOR IS BEING COY AND CLEVER HERE!”). But Mr. Ewan pulled it off: Charlie’s private errands are mentioned casually, without clang or big neon arrow, I was more than willing to go along for the ride because I trusted both Mr. Ewan and Charlie to bring it all home.
I was not disappointed.
I’m currently about five chapters into The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris^ and I’m enjoying the heck out of it. I’m also loving that there are two more books available, set in Vegas and Venice, respectively, and that Berlin is in the works!
*I believe we’ve previously established that I live under a rock, but in my defense, the series was first released in Great Britain, so I was going to claim amnesty for my ignorance until the first book was released here. In, apparently, 2009. Never mind.
**Chris Ewan himself is not a master thief—or else he’s being remarkably circumspect about it. The one-sentence bio of his second novel and his author page on the Simon & Schuster (UK) website both say he’s a lawyer, though I have no idea whether that’s still true. Regardless, I’m sure he’s heard all the jokes already.
***Yeah, that’s comparatively rare, and no, I’m not going to tell you which one—read the book and we’ll compare notes.
^Charlie is now the author of a faux-ography called, what else, The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam—way to meta, Mr. Ewan!