There is no room for any doubt here; it is stated quite clearly on the cover: "Charlie Howard writes caper novels about a career thief. He also happens to be one." The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam, from début crime author Chris Ewan, has a criminal as its protagonist/hero. This is also the start of a series. Ewan won the second fiction competition of Long Barn Books (which was a non-fiction publisher only, until the competition was introduced) and they publish his début in hardback on 4 June 2007. The paperback that follows is to be published by Simon & Schuster. Plans are already afoot and writing in progress, where Howard moves on to Paris and then New York for more thief’s guides. With signs of early success here, Amsterdam’s first print run for the hardback is already sold out and another print run follows.
So is it possible to base a series around a criminal? Can the reader like him enough to want to read on and read more? Oh yes. Think Robin Hood. Think Lovejoy, the slippery antiques dealer and loveable rogue. Think Hustle, the BBC’s TV series about con artists. Howard may be a thief, but he’s a thief with a conscience and an entertainingly sharp tongue that comes with dollops of humour. He’s as sharp as a scalpel blade, always ahead of the game and very, very human – this thief suffers from arthritis and gets beaten up badly, but lives to see another day, more than once.
In a nutshell: Charlie Howard is in Amsterdam working on his current novel. There, he is contacted by an American who asks him to steal three obviously worthless monkey figurines. The quickly expected execution of this deed has Charlie worried and so he declines the offer. Initially. But then, he changes his mind and goes ahead with it, finding someone else close on his trail as he is forced to hide and listen to another perform the same search in an apartment he was sent to. Charlie finds himself at the centre of a web of intrigue, with some kickback to a crime committed more than a decade ago; he is the main suspect of a police investigation; the American is dead, beaten so badly he could not possibly survive. So, as the monkeys are worthless plaster casts, exactly what is going on?
One thing is for sure – you won’t know until the end. The monkeys are based on the "three wise monkeys" – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. The true evil, and evolution of it are only brought to the surface at the end of the novel, in a scene which pays tribute to Agatha Christie with a gathering of all suspects in one location to have the "brainbox" tell it like it is, allowing no one to hide. In this case, it’s our "hero" Howard who is the brainbox and we’re in the new millennium here, so the location is nowhere near as comfortable and plush as the Orient Express, for example.
Where The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam may borrow from Christie when it comes to the approach to dénouement, the whole novel feels quite original and beautifully fresh.
Howard is quite a character. His hospital appointments for his troubling arthritis provide him with an opportunity to pinch the latex gloves he uses when on the job. (Once a thief, always a thief.) Ewan’s description of Howard’s genesis from curious child into even more curious teenager and eventually talented adult professional thief is quite superb.
As for the cutting edge humour, I’ll quote this as merely one example:
"… I noticed the thin man had found the time to replace the leather jacket I’d taken from him. I knew from experience now that the jacket wouldn’t provide much warmth but maybe that wasn’t the point. Perhaps it was all part of a uniform he and his broad companion had devised for themselves years ago, even if only on a subconscious level. I could imagine them both getting ready to head out for some general villainy and the procedure they might go through. Van keys? Check. Bovver boots? Check. Baseball bat? Check. Shall I wear the leather jacket? Oh go on then."
Here we have another crime fiction début that deserves to be welcomed with open arms. Howard may be a thief, but it’s so very possible to like him, love him even, as he’s not the sort of thief to want to break into the average person’s home and take in the detail of the knicker draw!
The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam is intriguing and fun. It’s a début not to be missed and the beauty of it is that it’s the start of a series. More Charlie to come; more intriguing stories and more locations. Wonderful!
An interview with the author will follow shortly.