The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin by Chris Ewan
The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin by Chris Ewan (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the fifth in the series featuring the burglar as author Charlie Howard. It’s always said an author should write about what he knows. Well, this fictional author writes thrillers loosely based on his own experiences as a thief. Because he needs to make ends meet while waiting for the next royalty cheque to arrive, he continues to delicately tease doors open, gracefully extract money from safes, and remove objects of value easily fenced through his network. After arriving in Germany, his writer’s block is being more blocky than usual so his nefarious activities have become more necessary. Not surprisingly, this rash of burglaries has not gone unnoticed by the Berlin police. Perhaps he would have been preparing to move on but he’s waiting for his agent to visit after attending the Frankfurt Book Fair. If they were the type of people to make a commitment, they would be a couple but, as is often the way in books like this, their romance remains on hold.
So it is that, on the day Victoria arrives, his fence brokers a meeting with a client who has an urgent problem to solve. It’s not something that should be a challenge to a thief with the skills of our hero. All he has to do is break into four addresses within the confines of Berlin to recover something that’s been stolen. To make it interesting, all four burglaries have to be committed on the same evening when it’s known the occupants will not be at home and the client won’t say what he’s looking for. The only helpful information the client will vouchsafe is that Charlie will know it when he sees it. So who’s the client? None other than the British embassy in Berlin. Why is potentially dangerous? Well there are these people called spies who have a tendency to violence when their wishes are ignored.
With Victoria as his agent to negotiate the fees for this task — a ladder fee for each burglary and a finder’s fee for the “object” — our hero reluctantly sets off to the first address. After thirty minutes of fruitless searching, he looks out of the window and, in the best traditions of Alfred Hitchcock, witnesses a murder through the window of the apartment opposite. Being a responsible citizen, he telephones the police and quickly exits his building. After hearing sirens arrive, he and Victoria walk past the target building, see the lights on in the right apartment, but find the police leaving, alleging a false alarm. This is surprising to our hero. He’s not used to have his anonymous word doubted. So, as he sets off to the next address, he begins to plan a return to the scene of the “murder” so he can unravel what must have happened in the few minutes between his call and the arrival of the police. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, he finds a file appropriately marked “Top Secret” hidden in the hotel room of his second target. Unfortunately, when he and Victoria return home, they find two Russian agents waiting for them. It only takes a little persuasion for Charlie to pass over the file. Fortunately, we have the rest of the book to see how it plays out.
I’m amazed that Simon & Schuster, who have been publishing this series in the UK, should have refused to pick this title up. It’s every bit as good as the last in the series. All I can say is more fool them and kudos to St Martin’s Press who have continued with the series in the US. This is a fast-paced plot with plenty of surprises and the usual smiles as we track our hero through a Berlin positively bursting at the seams with spies. The only person not clued into what’s happening is our hero, of course. The client not only failed to identify precisely what Charlie was supposed to be looking for, but also neglected to mention certain other facts which might have assisted in resolving the situation. As it is, Charlie is forced to take a couple of beatings, face intimidation and finally pick up a gun in self-defence. This is not something you would have expected of our hero who usually manages to talk his way out of trouble. These spy people are so terribly insistent when it comes to this missing “package”. So this is taking Charlie into uncharted territory where he’s going to have to make decisions about his relationship with Victoria and, perhaps more importantly, decide what kind of person he really is. Put all this together and you have a highly entertaining thriller. The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin marks an interesting, if not cliffhanging, point to pause the series. New free-standing books have begun to appear from this talented author. The first on the shelves, Safe House, has been shortlisted for The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award and is an Amazon UK bestseller. It’s on my list of books to read.
For a review of the last in the series, see The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.