Diamonds, who has them, and who wants to get hold of them are central to this exciting debut novel by Chris Ewan, their origin fundamental to the dilemma that faces Charlie Howard, a mystery writer and part-time thief who is currently living in Amsterdam in the hope that the city will inspire him to sort out some of the plot problems that plague his current story.
Charlie is surely not your average thief, or mystery writer. A man who despises guns and violence, Charlie has only taken to thieving so that he can earn that little bit of extra cash on the side, despite the obvious risks involved. Cautious by nature, Charlie is hesitant to take chances, even when a shady American by the name of Michael Park contacts him via his web site asking to meet him at a well-known café near central Amsterdam.
Charlie has no idea who Park is and has far less reason to trust him, but the lure of a new job is something that he's long since given up trying to fight. When Park hands Charlie a plaster of Paris figurine of a monkey and asks him to steal two more, one that covers
its ears and the other its mouth, Charlie is at first uncertain whether or not to take him up on the offer.
All things considered, it is hard to imagine that the figurines are worth more than a handful of pounds or euros, but Park is determined that Charlie should be the one to do the job.
Both are in private dwellings, one in a houseboat, the other in an apartment, and therefore both will be relatively easy to steal. Charlie initially says no but decides that he can't really resist the challenge, especially as Park has guaranteed that no one will be home in the respective residences.
The houseboat burglary goes pretty well, but Charlie is interrupted on the second robbery just as he's holding the second precious monkey figurine in his hands. Forced to hide in the attic while the intruder slashes all of the furniture, perhaps fanatically looking for something, little does Charlie know that this particular escapade into the world of petty thievery is going to become a lot more complicated than he first thought.
Figurines in hand, he arrives back at the Café only to be told by the beautiful blonde bartender Marieke that Michael Park has disappeared, taken by two men, one thin and one large. Charlie notices that Marieke's movements are rushed and she looks anxious; when he shows her the figurines, her blue eyes are surprisingly transfixed by the objects.
When Park is discovered beaten to death in his flat, Charlie abruptly realizes that he's in too deep. Having never played a game like this before, he finds himself in real hot water and the chief suspect in Park's murder. But even as Charlie tries to thwart the investigation of the lead Dutch police officer, Inspector Burggrave, who has taken a severe disliking to him, his dilemma becomes even more complicated by the arrival of two masked henchmen, both determined to get their hands on the figurines.
Everyone is corrupt or ruined, or hiding their true motivations in Ewan's seedy Amsterdam, the motive for Park's murder appearing to be one way or another tied to the mysterious monkeys. Charlie's nemesis, however, eventually arrives direct from the British Embassy in the form of the overweight and jocular Englishman Henry Rutherford, who promises to help Charlie unlock the mystery of Park's past life.
Holding onto the key pieces of evidence, the figurines, Rutherford appears to be the ultimate affable and loyal lawyer, helping Charlie research a dark secret that involves a botched diamond robbery at a Dutch trading company called Van Zandt's, where apparently Park once worked as a security guard and
from which he ultimately stole a fortune in prized stones, resulting in the death of a fellow officer.
All is a perfect fit for murder, thievery and double-crossing treachery as Charlie becomes too preoccupied with the mess he's unwittingly gotten himself into. There
are just far too many unanswered questions fogging his brain and preventing him from thinking clearly, especially for this small-time burglar who just "happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
An unusual mix of cheery crime caper and serious thriller, it's not entirely surprising that The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam actually does read like a tour guide. Ewan truly shines in evoking the chilly atmosphere of this famous city, including the red light district with its dance music constantly pulsing out from the sex booths, the grandness and seediness of Central Station, and bleak expanses of the eastern dock areas where much of the later action takes place.
While Ewan does rely a little to heavily on the "whodunit" formula to couch the revelations that provide the climax, his light, breezy prose and his ability to create such a likeable and intelligent thief provide much to admire in what will hopefully be a series of books about the inimitable Charlie Howard and his exciting dual worlds of literature and thievery.