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Book Review: The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice

The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice

by Chris Ewan

Minotaur Books, 2011

Chris Ewan continues his mystery series following “good thief” Charlie Howard to various tourism-friendly locales in 2011′s The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice. The series meshes two standby gimmicks of the genre: Charlie is not only a sleuth-as-thief, he’s also a sleuth-as-mystery-writer, and in the latest instalment he’s been in Venice for about a year, resolutely turning his back on the criminal half of his past, working every day (under his framed-for-good-luck signed first edition of The Maltese Falcon) on the Fondamenta Venier to finish his new mystery, which he hopes will be his “breakout” book (there are many such ironies folded into Ewan’s books – they must all have seemed clever, at some point). To speed him on his task, he actually has his agent, Victoria, living with him when The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice opens, although she’s sound asleep at 2 a.m. when the novel opens with our hero hearing the unmistakable sounds of a break-in taking place. He catches only a glimpse of the thief – a platinum-blonde beauty – before she makes off with his Maltese Falcon, and as she makes her escape, we catch a glimpse of Ewan’s perfervid writing voice:

… meanwhile, she cranked the throttle and sped off beneath a low arched bridge in the direction of the lagoon, her blonde hair flicking in the misty darkness like a guttering flame. Within seconds, she was gone, and all that remained was the slap of disturbed water, the stench of diesel in the dank air an the fading note of her engine rebounding from the walls of the crooked buildings that surrounded me.

The felonious blonde makes a quick re-appearance in the book, and alas, so does that writing voice, self-consciously mugging for the camera, loading every noun and verb with stultifying impedimenta, constantly lunging for a quasi-Wodehousian brio, with results that would have horrified dear old Madeline Bassett: “Fortunately, Victoria was snoring, and being a keen student of human behaviour, I took this to mean that she was asleep.” The book is so padded with this class-clown teacher-bs-ing that it takes nearly 400 pages to tell a story that could have been comfortably housed in half that length. This round-about approach also affects physical descriptions: we’re told on the book’s jacket that although our author lives on the Isle of Man, “his heart remains in Venice,” but we’re also told things like the Fondamenta Venier being “about half-way between” the Accademia di Belle Arti and the Guggenheim collection (I seem to recall similar slips in The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam – maybe it’s the canals? We can check if we ever get The Good Thief’s Guide to Bruges). ‘Guide’ is to be taken advisedly.

Readers looking for an authentic you-are-there feel best stick to Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin; readers looking for the quirky, television-friendly lovable-rogue phenomenon that’s been infesting the mystery genre since Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy novels (although they at least were superbly written) will find everything here to their liking: a good guy who’s just a little big naughty and in no way, shape, or form interesting, danger that’s not really all that dangerous, and one-liners you can see coming from the next sestiere. “Anything I ever learned about writing I learned from Hammett,” Charlie tells us, and he’s clearly not speaking for Ewan – there’s more flab and profligacy in this one book than in Hammett’s entire life’s work. But there are compensations: the “Good Thief” books have been optioned as a TV series (no doubt starring an adorable-moderately-sexy lead – somebody call Tom Felton with the happy news). Dash could have told you: that’s where the money is.

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