The Good Thief's Guide to Berlin by Chris Ewan is the fifth novel about globetrotting writer-slash-criminal Charlie Howard (available August 6, 2013).
When Charlie Howard’s literary agent, Victoria, secures a burglary deal for him in Berlin, along with a few possible foreign deals for his new book, he’s not surprised by her initiative. However, when he meets with his contact, who turns out to be working for the British Embassy, his instructions for the theft are rather frustrating and also incomplete. The contact refuses to tell Charlie what he’s supposed to steal, only that there are four apartments that he must search, and he’ll know the item when he sees it. Now, before we get into the thick of things, keep in mind Charlie has a few rules of his own when it comes to his chosen profession.
“Rules. They can be a tricky proposition for a thief like me. It’s not often I find myself on the right side of the law, and the truth is, I enjoy breaking most rules as much as I relish breaking into a stranger’s home. But there are certain rules I try very hard to obey. Naturally, the rules I’m talking about are ones I’ve devised for myself. Over the years, the list has grown pretty long, though it all developed from one simple principle: Don’t get caught.
Want to hear a selection? Well, let’s see. I never break into a property that’s occupied, unless I absolutely have to. I use my picks wherever possible, because I don’t enjoy destroying someone’s door. I don’t ransack or leave a mess. If I’m working for myself, I target folks who can afford it, and I rarely steal anything of sentimental value. If I’m hired on commission, I only work for people I trust or individuals who pay me enough to overcome my concerns. I always wear gloves. I always knock before I enter. I always lock up before I leave. And, as of now, I have a new rule to add to my list. Don’t admire the view.”
See, admiring the view at the first location is what kick starts a series of events that puts Charlie way out of his comfort zone and starts him, and Victoria, on a wild goose chase across a city still showing evidence of the dichotomy, beauty, and even oddities of East and West Berlin. Take, for example, the hundreds of Ping-Pong tables set up on the eastern side of the city where Charlie first meets his contact:
“There are hundreds of these tables throughout the eastern side of the city. It’s something we have the good old GDR to thank for.”
It wasn’t hard to believe. The table we were playing on was sturdy and functional in design, and like a lot of the Soviet-era architecture, it was formed out of concrete. The legs were concrete. The tabletop was concrete. The net, for variety, was made from a gridded strip of metal that glinted in the electric lamplight. Oh, and the whole thing was covered in a colorful array of graffiti. Layer upon layer of names and slogans and profanities and symbols, almost as if we were playing on a horizontal slab of the Berlin Wall.
As Charlie and Victoria become embroiled in a race to find an object that many other factions, including the Russians and even the Americans, are interested in, they also delve deeper into a city that is at once utilitarian and fascinatingly beautiful, and teeming with life.
“The building I was pointing to was a pale pinkish red. To me, it was as clear as a ship’s distress flare. I could have mentioned the color to Victoria, but the truth is I already had. Twice. And if she wasn’t seeing it now, I didn’t believe she ever would.
We were facing the wide concrete band of Karl Marx-Allee. The imposing boulevard speared out from Alexanderplatz toward the giant circular crossroads at Frankfurter Tor. I knew the Allee was a couple of kilometers in length, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that if the Fernsehturm were to come loose from its foundations and topple forward right now, it would fit perfectly into the space, like a tall dessert spoon in a chest of silverware. The Allee was lined on either side by vast, boxy apartment complexes. There were many more blocks and towers all over the eastern side of the city. Looking down on them, I was struck by how ordered it all appeared. Everything was a straight line or a rectangle or a square, reminding me of a giant Airfix model. If I just pressed my thumb against the glass, it seemed as though I might be able to pry the individual pieces out of their giant plastic frame, ready to build a new model city from somewhere in the Cold War depths of the USSR.”
From stark, blocky architecture to the derelict beauty of an abandoned amusement park ,and even a derelict listening station atop a hill (Tuefelsberg, or Devil’s Hill) created from the detritus of Berlin itself after WWII, it’s all here. The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin is not only a cracking suspense tale (flavored with shades of It’s a Mad Mad, Mad, Mad World, Berlin-style), but it’s also a sparkling travelogue of a city ripe with history and intrigue. The mystery is fun, the characters are drawn to perfection and the ending will have you salivating for the next installment of this sharp and clever series.
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