Review: The Hemingway Thief by Shaun Harris

The Hemingway Thief by Shaun Harris is a thrilling debut, featuring a stolen Hemingway manuscript that may contain clues to the location of a bigger prize.

The Hemingway Thief is a tight, well crafted thriller, which, like all good books, has characters who are neither entirely good nor completely bad. A bit, I understand, like Hemingway himself. 

The year is 1922. The place: Paris. Hadley is instructed by her husband to gather up all his work, place it in a case, and come join him in Switzerland. Hadley does just as her spouse, Ernest Hemingway, directs and packs up a year’s collection of his work—which disappears. 

That is, until it’s discovered in the hands of Ebbie Milch—a name that sounds like something you scrunch up and sprinkle around your front yard. Ever fond of his drink, Milch turns up in Mexico with the rare material, desperate to make himself scarce, as he has misappropriated the first draft of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast

A love of alcohol is the only thing the crook has in common with Hemingway, and things go terribly wrong for him, as, not surprisingly, he is not the only one who has more than a passing interest in the manuscript. Gathering like vultures at sunset, few of them have a love of all things literary—their motivation is to get their hands on the papers. The work is not only unique, but contains clues to the remainder of the material in the case and the uncovering of a plot, which Hemingway, then just a writer starting out on the dawn of his career, will do anything to make see the light of day. 

Henry Cooper, “Coop” to his friends and, indeed, to a few of his enemies, is chief amongst those taking more than a passing interest in the manuscript. He and Milch would probably not have met if it were not for the fact that Milch is rescued from two thugs, keen to do him considerable harm, by Grady Doyle, who usually spends most of him time relaxing on a beach in Baja with his friend…Henry Cooper, who is struggling to write his latest novel. 

The story unfolding before Cooper’s eyes could prove to be the book of a lifetime, but it means little if he is not alive to reap the rewards. The bullets and knives, unlike in the stories, are far too real, and you seldom get a re-write when you are at the wrong end of hot lead and sharp steel. 

I found this an interesting read, as it seemed to embody more than one style. At times, the language and short, sharp exchanges read like a South London gangster yarn, then it flows effortlessly back to the lazy Baja beach with the sea, sand, and desperate people trying to score the big one.

”Sure,” I said, talking fast. “We got this guy come into the hotel. He gets in a fight and we help him out. Just trying to do the right thing, you know? Then we find he has this manuscript. We haven’t even read it. So this guy Milch asks us to bring it to Ensenada for him. We didn’t know it was stolen. You say it it’s yours. It’s yours. No skin off my nose. I was going to ask for a finder’s fee, mavbe, but at this point I’d just like to go home.”

“I see,” Thandy said. “So you’re just trying to do the right thing? Is that it?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Of course,” Thandy repeated. He nodded along with the words and ran his bony hand through his hair. “Is this the truth, Doyle?”

“He forgot to mention Mr Costas had a bad meeting with the grille of a VW truck, but yeah, that’s the sum of it.” Andy took a swipe at my head and I saw stars.

The action swings along, and there is a lot of dealing and double dealing as more and more people become book lovers once they realize the potential money they could make from the manuscript. One or two even seem to understand the market.

“Consumers are like the Irish. To them everybody is a saint after they die.”

In addition to trying to score big time, Cooper is also dealing with his demons, not least of which is finding it very hard whenever anyone compares him to John Grisham. The mere mention of his name sees a fury unleash in Cooper that is best to stay well away from. The writing seems to get better and better by the page, until there is a climax which is as sharply crafted as anything I have read and, make no mistake about it, as mean as cat shit. The attention to detail is very impressive, which always has the result of making you feel you are actually in the room with the people when it is all going down.

A crew of four Mexicans sat at a table in the corner. It was not yet seven o’clock and they did not look like early risers. It must have been the end of a long night or series of nights. They were going through the motions of playing cards, but if it was poker then it was a version with which I wasn’t familiar. One of them sat with his head back staring at the ceiling, and half of the cards in his hand were facing the wrong way. The other three noticed our entrance with casual interest.

The bartender sat on the bottom step of the staircase reading a newspaper when we approached. He was a thin man with a sparse beard and an apron that looked like a work from Pollack’s late period.

If you take my advice and do indeed want to get hold of this book for a superb read, remember all you have to do is part with some of your honestly earned money. You really don’t have to be a thief.  

 

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Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.

Read all Dirk Robertson’s posts for Criminal Element.

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