Posts Tagged ‘Charlie Howard’

The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin by Chris Ewan

October 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Good Thief's Guide to Berlin

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.

Chris Ewan

Chris Ewan

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.

The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice by Chris Ewan

December 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Good Thief;s Guide to Venice-dec-2011

When we reviewers want to show off, we tend to bandy words like “metafiction” around as if we actually know what they mean. I‘m not entirely sure such academic extravagance is justified but, in this case, it does give me the right starting point to talk about The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice by Chris Ewan (Minotaur Books, 2012). In many ways I’m always inclined to like books that self-consciously play with the medium of writing. Here we have a first-person narrative exploring the world of a semi-retired thief called Charlie Howard. As someone experienced in dishonest arts, this potentially makes him an unreliable narrator but, only in certain key moments does he actually hide things from the reader. For most of the book, he’s disarmingly honest and not a little confused by the circumstances in which he finds himself. That said, he’s abandoned the life of crime to focus on writing crime fiction. Appropriately, he’s created a burglar as hero who, in fiction, plays out some of the “real” crimes the author has committed. Should he ever be suspected as a very good thief, the police would only need to read his books to identify his methods and some of the crimes he had committed. Such are the minor excitements of an author when he choses to write about what he knows best. More importantly, it also gives Chris Ewan the chance to play with the craft of writing and, for example, discuss how to arrive at those sentences at the end of chapters intended to hook you into turning the page rapidly to find out what happens next.

This would all be wonderful if our author had stopped there. But he has also decided to engage in what’s intended as a slight aping of past prose styles. I would have been happy with a parody of hardboiled pulp. Having grown up surrounded by the detective magazines and adventure/mystery fiction that so dominated the first four decades of the last century, I enjoy an affectionate reprise if it’s done well. Nostalgia for days of innocent fun still runs strong. Unfortunately, instead of aiming high for Chandler or Hammett, we have something rather closer to a poor parody of Leslie Charteris filtered though Wodehouse. Now don’t get me wrong, the tradition of the gentleman as a thief is littered with interesting historical relics. The Saint is paper-thin plots but some morality, while Hornung’s Raffles shows slightly more brio. Perhaps the Maurice Leblanc creation Arsène Lupin is the best both in their originals and all those who followed in his footsteps. He does at least manage to avoid looking foolish. Chris Ewan has similar pretensions with his “good thief” taking on criminals who are at least as bad if not worse than he. That he emerges in one piece speaks loudly of some skill and quite a lot of luck, i.e. he does look foolish some of the time.

Chris Ewan showing a little British understatement

Chris Ewan showing a little British understatement

So where does all this leave us? I like the plot of this novel. There’s a certain elegance on display as we slowly work our way through the revelations to the punchline at the end. There are, however, a number of problems. I prefer to avoid coincidences and the arrival of one figure as we work our way up to the final confrontations is an egregious example of the phenomenon. It’s all a little too convenient in a story that had been moving along comfortably under its own steam. Secondly, there’s a serious problem in the tone of the book. Even at the best of times, it’s very difficult to generate humour out of a thriller scenario. In this instance, the reason for the failure is the metafictional self-consciousness of the first-person voice. When the author is smiling with us, showing us how clever he is in deconstructing the process of writing a page-turner, it’s difficult to make us laugh with or at the narrator when he falls flat on his face or goes through some other experience that might otherwise have raised a smile. This is easier with a third-person show-and-tell. A more omniscient author can expose the mechanism of the prat fall by walking us through the scene, giving us a sense of anticipation, and then laughing as the expected catastrophe befalls the character. In the first-person form, the main feeling is the embarrassment or humiliation of the victim.

Finally we come to the problem of a book wanting to be a caper movie. Although my heart will always belong to Rififi, we’ve all sat through and enjoyed The Italian Job, the Ocean’s series and all the others where the pleasingly criminal show off their skills with a sly but endearing smile. Sadly, this hero could not be played by George Clooney. Worse, the wit and humour, such as it is, comes over as rather more laboured. Earlier in the review, I referred to Wodehouse and the humour of this book has a certain period charm about it, i.e. it is populated by slightly eccentric characters with curious interests and superstitions (our hero feels he can’t write unless he can look up at the first edition of The Maltese Falcon he stole early in his career) with two strong female characters to help and hinder. But the version presented here is too long, the slight jokiness wears thin, and the payoff is not really amusing. It just feels like a reasonably good place to stop. So, on balance, The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice would have been better if a strong-willed editor had persuaded the author to cut out the deadwood and leave us with a faster-paced thriller where we might actually feel our hero was in real danger.

For a review of the next book in the series, see The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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