Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam: Chris Ewan

This is what the back of the book had to say about its plot.

In Amsterdam working on his latest novel, Charlie is approached by a mysterious American who asks him to steal two apparently worthless monkey figurines from two separate addresses on the same night. At first he says no. Then he changes his mind. Only later, kidnapped and bound to a chair, the American very dead, and a spell in police custody behind him, does Charlie realise how costly a mistake he might have made.

The police think he killed the American. Others think he knows the whereabouts of the elusive third monkey. But for Charlie only three things matter. Can he clear his name? Can he get away with the haul of a lifetime? And can he solve the gaping plot hole in his latest novel?

The most interesting aspect of Chris Ewan’s debut work is the profession of the protagonist: Charlie Howard doesn’t just write books about a career thief, he also happens to be one. And this case, he also solves the crime. The characterisation brims with possibilities. Of intersecting and diverging plots, parallel narratives, common characters, a Lhosa-like spillover from the story to the street and vice versa, and much more. May be Chris Ewan will make capital of these in future (this book claims to be the first in a series). May be that’s why he has defined the protagonist the way he has.

With such a protagonist, I suppose one should not be surprised at the use of the first person narrative. Except that it comes with its own inevitable bit of navel-gazing – that this is a first novel of the author comes through in this – the protagonist, like the author, appears to be too conscious of himself at times.

There are but a handful of characters in the entire book, and all of them are suspects. And then there are the cops. With enough crime fiction under your belt, you should know where this is heading. Shades of Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders here, including the identity of the real criminal? Oops, did I reveal too much?

I find crime fiction set in different countries and cities to be more interesting than travelogues and guide books; the crime makes a good backdrop and the process of investigation affords a good sense of the country / city – the geography, the people, the politics and economics of the country, the corruption, the weather, etc. Maj Sjöwall / Per Wahlöö and Henning Mankell are my local travel guides for Sweden; Georges Simenon serves as a good Lonely Planet for France; Arlandur Indridason shows you around Iceland; and scores of writers lay bare the towns, cities and villages of England and the US. Unfortunately, except for the odd walk through the city roads and a few anonymous restaurants, The Good Thief’s Guide doesn’t provide so much as a picture postcard of Amsterdam; this book could’ve been set just as well anywhere in the world. Well, I suppose it’s my fault really, the key is to pick up a work by a native writer: Chris Ewan is an Englishman.

There were a few unmistakable alert signals with The Good Thief’s Guide. To begin with, the title itself. It’s one of those that suggest that the book can only sit in the extremes. The tagline that goes with the title (Three Wise Monkeys. One Baffled Thief.) offered no reassurance either. Then there was the fact that author-signed copies of the book were freely available in the High Street in London. Especially considering it is a debut work, this surely is a staggering exhibition of arrogance, confidence or desperation? On the other hand, these factors together perhaps reduced my expectation when I went into the book – I found the book to be racy and witty, notwithstanding the warts and all.

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