Boyne skillfully shades his novel with the damaged soul of finely educated Maurice Swift, an alarming schemer willing to indulge in anything from adultery to murder. In following him, the reader discovers an amusing bunch of people, some of them witty if not overly wise, especially Erich Ackermann. In West Berlin in 1988, Erich finds himself unexpectedly attracted to handsome, sexually ambivalent Maurice, who latches onto Erich when the older man offers him a job following the success of his novel and his subsequent elevation to the ranks of literary celebrity.
Erich knows that he could well benefit from having a companion, an "assistant if you will." As Maurice settles into the role, he reminds Erich of his childhood friend Oskar Gott. Erich confides to Maurice about the solitude he's endured throughout he life and the dark secret that he's been keeping about the events leading up to Oskar's death at the hands of the Nazis. Old forgotten heartaches that Erich had thought locked away for decades suddenly rear their ugly head: the early months of 1939, when neither he nor Oskar mentioned the possibility of war or the weekly meetings of the Hilterjugend.
Maurice hones in on Erich's memories as he seeks to take advantage with the ruthlessness of a black widow spider. He clandestinely advances his own career by publishing Maurice's story. Maurice gradually becomes the motivating figure, detailing with startling ruthlessness the yearnings that threatened to annihilate Erich throughout his youth. From Copenhagen and Rome to a series of Erich's Parisian interviews, Maurice develops into a plagiaristic monster. Dining with Gore Vidal on his crescent terrace overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, Maurice flirts with the famous writer and fawns over the latest work by current literary celebrity Dash Hardy. Maurice keeps dangling Dash by a string, but not before he's "ready to move on to pastures new."
Boyne's Machiavellian hero rewrites a journey that derails the career of his wife, Edith. In the novel's most pivotal scene, she accuses Maurice of "not being a writer at all," of stealing her own words as well as the life of Ackerman: "on their worst day any one of my students has more ability than you." Undeterred, Maurice is convinced that he will be the greatest novelist of his generation. But returning to London from New York, he faces the problem that has plagued his life: "I feared I was finished, stalled for lack for an original thought."
In picturing the inside story of an ambitious author's rise from starstruck student to phony-eyed literary award winner, Boyne delivers a saga of ambition and conceit, of pride, deception and hypocrisy. Like the proverbial cat, Maurice has a habit of landing on his feet--that is until he meets Theo, a wide-eyed young student who wants write a thesis on his writings. While selfish Maurice sees in Theo an opportunity to unburden himself of the ghost of his teenage son, Theo's clever maneuverings will bring to a climax Maurice's absurd mix of guilt. Finally, perhaps it's Maurice's alcoholism that has allowed him to feel that he might actually understand why he has done the things he's done.
As an increasingly drunk and dissolute Maurice trolls the London pubs he embarks on a campaign of confessing everything to Theo in the hope that Daniel will somehow forgive him and "make his world clean again." Boyne puts so many vivid literary types through the flattening and decimating wringer of his unmerciful wit. The strength of his writing comes less from the plot and more from the way Theo delivers his coup de grāce, as well as Maurice's realization that he's essentially a spoiled thing who has played out a life turned bad.
Like the machinations of the famous Tom Ripley, Maurice's literary theft is the key factor in a story about the nature of fate and of one man's changing circumstances. Some murders are simply collateral damage. As Maurice's story unfolds a paragraph or two at a time, we come to realize just how far he will go the achieve storybook fame.