By Janice Wilder
I discovered this book by accident, & read it in a couple of nights. The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam by Chis Ewan is the first in a series. Charlie Howard is the good thief of the title, and he is a most unusual character. Not only is he a criminal, he is also a crime writer—this outing he’s in Amsterdam working on a book when he is commissioned by an American to steal two monkey figurines, not telling Charlie that he has the third. Charlie’s client tells him where the figurines are located, and keeps the owners in the coffee house while Charlie goes about his business. (The coffee house & the beautiful blonde behind the counter feature a lot in this story—it would appear she’s also looking for these supposedly worthless monkeys). Of course, things don’t go to plan—he finds the first monkey exactly where it’s supposed to be, but the second one has gone missing. The mysterious American is found beaten to death in the flat where this second figurine was supposed to be hidden & Charlie is arrested for the murder. In comes Rutherford, the lawyer attached to the British Consulate, or so he says. Rutherford, a great character, turns out to be not what we are lead to believe—but not wanting to spoil the fun I can’t say any more about him. There follows a lot of twists & turns & a fair bit of mayhem—I laughed out loud at times. So if you like a bit of light-hearted crime, like I do, this book is for you. It won the Long Barn Books first novel award & was short-listed for the Last Laugh Award for best comic crime fiction.
Naming the Bones is the fourth novel by Louise Welsh. Some of my colleagues have urged me to read her, but I have resisted for some reason. Anyway, I finally decided to give her a go and I really enjoyed this book. It is, like a lot of the books I like, deeply imbued with a sense of place—from the seedy pubs of Glasgow, where men have names like ‘Crippen’, to the wild island of Lismore off the coast of Scotland. Dr Murray Watson, a lecturer in English literature at Glasgow University, is obsessed with reviving the reputation of a poet, Archie Lunan (he feels strongly that Lunan should have achieved more with his life and work), and solving the mystery of his death on Lismore some ten years ago. All Watson has to guide him in his quest are a slim volume of poetry and a box of indecipherable notes. His search takes him to Lismore where Lunan lived in a kind of commune, consuming excessive amounts of drugs & alcohol in a seedy run down hut with his partner Christie, who, after Lunan’s death, stayed on the island, for reasons that become clear later in the story. She is a recluse, and at first declines to meet with Watson, but after he rescues her when her car is stuck in the mud, she relents and tells him the story that he is after. Murray Watson is a flawed character, like a lot of men in crime and mystery stories. He drinks too much, has very little self-confidence and is having a sort of affair with Rachael, the head of his department, Fergus Baine’s wife. Fergus has a large part to play in the drama that unfolds on the cold and desolate island. This is not really a crime novel, although crimes have been committed—reading more like a literary mystery. It is one of those books that remains with you for a while after turning the last page, and perhaps, like me, will lead you to reading Welsh’s earlier works.
I mentioned at the end of my last column the new Anne Tyler novel. I have been a fan of Tyler’s books for a long time. I have read them all, and I think only one disappointed me. I particularly love some of her very early works, like The Accidental Tourist, Saint Maybe and Morgan’s Crossing. Which is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed her later novels—and her latest, The Beginner’s Goodbye is a great read. Tyler is all about the domestic, rather than the public life. She is particularly good at writing about emotionally repressed men, and Aaron Woolcott is no exception. He works for a family publishing company, that is both a vanity press and successful publisher of the successful Beginners series. One of the joys of the book is when the staff sit around trying to come up with subjects for a Beginners book. One of the things I loved about Saint Maybe was the idea of ‘The Church of the Second Chance’, and the publishing company in this novel takes on a similar role, in that it would never publish anything against the company’s moral values. Aaron is another flawed hero. His right arm and leg are paralysed—he wears a brace and uses a cane, and he has a bad stutter. He finds all this humiliating, especially the feeling that all his life he has been looked after by his mother & sister. When he meets Dorothy who becomes his wife, it seems as if he has made a deliberate decision to choose someone who won’t take care of him. In fact, Dorothy, a busy, brusque, no-nonsense doctor, rather neglects him. When Dorothy is killed in a freak accident, Aaron is devastated—he is terrified of being looked after again, and fends off all the worthy women who drop round and leave food on his doorstep when he refuses to open the door. When the shade of Dorothy returns to fill his loneliness, the grieving Aaron comes to see that his marriage was not all that he thought it was. He starts to experience his life anew, embracing the possibility of finding lasting happiness. Tyler has been criticised for her happy endings, but I can’t see what is wrong with a happy ending every now and then.