Book Review: Island of Thieves by Glen Erik Hamilton
By John ValeriAugust 3, 2021
Seattle native Glen Erik Hamilton’s debut novel, Past Crimes (2015), introduced readers to protagonist Van Shaw—a reformed thief and military veteran. In addition to launching a venerable series, that book garnered critical acclaim and won the Anthony, Macavity, and Strand Magazine Critics Awards while also being nominated for the Edgar, Barry, and Nero Awards; four well-received entries followed. July sees the publication of the series’ sixth installment, Island of Thieves.
As the story opens, we find Shaw operating under cover of darkness, using the tools of his former trade to perpetrate the removal of a small statue from a seemingly secure waterfront facility. This is not a return to his criminal roots, in which he apprenticed under his grandfather, but rather a paid assignment to assess Droma International’s points of strength and vulnerability. When Shaw pulls off the task with ease, his new benefactor, Sebastian Rohner, offers him a more lucrative proposition: to surveil his art collection, and possibly catch a thief, during an international business summit to be held on his private island.
Despite his misgivings about the job, Shaw is curious and money-motivated enough to accept and is soon flown to Briar Bay. Introduced as the property’s new “facilities manager,” he is met with a potent mix of derision and suspicion by many of the company’s employees (including a security detail). Things further deteriorate when Shaw discovers the dead body of one of Rohner’s business associates, Nelson Bao, partially submerged along the shore, which brings a swift end to the summit. Whisked away from the island along with the other guests, Shaw soon realizes that his troubles have only just begun. Already a person of interest in Bao’s death, a second killing results in his further implication.
Given the ensuing presumption of guilt coupled with multiple attempts on his life, Shaw has no choice but to go rogue. Fortunately, his background renders him well-equipped to do so—though distance can provide only so much protection. While little about the situation is transparent, Shaw does know one thing for certain: everything traces back to that fateful night on Briar Bay, where something more valuable than art went missing. Consequently, questions—what exactly was stolen, by whom, and why—abound in his decisive (and deadly) pursuit of truth. It’s a journey that plays out by air, land, and water, and features exhilarating chase sequences written with cinematic flare.
Shaw is the narrative focal point, though short segments centering on Rohner (and his associates) become more frequent as the story plays out; this is an effective technique to heighten suspense by isolating information between characters. Equally compelling, if less consequential to the plot, are the personal stakes. An unexpected attraction to a new (and possibly duplicitous) acquaintance complicates Shaw’s open relationship with longtime lover, Wren, while his flight—which could potentially result in jail time (or worse)—causes fear of abandonment in pseudo-daughter, Cyndra. And while his moral compass is firmly in place, sometimes the price of justice is compromise.
Island of Thieves is a breathtaking cross-country caper, its action-packed pages offset by an emotional poignancy that echoes longer and louder than any shot fired. Glen Erik Hamilton masterfully combines criminal intrigue, moral ambiguity, relationship entanglements, and atmospheric embellishments with of-the-moment technology that starkly contrasts classic themes of justice and redemption. Van Shaw, imperfect yet admirably righteous, is a fitting hero for our grayscale times.