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Originally published Friday, September 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Good Thief": Coming of age with some seedy role models

In Hannah Tinti's debut novel "The Good Thief," a teenage orphan gets an education from grave robbers, con men and other rapscallions.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Good Thief"

by Hannah Tinti

Dial Press, 336 pp., $25

Following the success of her short-story collection "Animal Crackers," Hannah Tinti has written a debut novel that captures the innocence and hopefulness of being 12 years old through the eyes of an orphan in 19th-century New England. Ren is a sweet, wide-eyed boy who has given up on being adopted because he is missing a hand. His heart leaps when a man claiming to be his brother rescues him from the orphanage where he has lived since infancy.

Ren soon learns that Benjamin lied about being his brother but remains devoted to his rescuer, participating in the man's increasingly risky criminal schemes, from snake-oil cons to grave-robbing. Ren forms close bonds with Benjamin and other seedy characters as he learns the meaning of trust, friendship and family.

The first couple hundred pages of "The Good Thief" move slowly, with Tinti carefully developing her characters and their relationships. The payoff is worth it. When the action picks up, the book becomes difficult to put down. A cavalcade of chase scenes, suspenseful moments and revelations culminates with Ren discovering the truth about his past and taking steps toward becoming a confident man surrounded by love.

"The Good Thief" probably is not a book that will change people's lives, but it is a delightful coming-of-age tale with poignant life lessons that make Ren wiser. An ongoing lesson involves the difference between right and wrong and the gray in between.

Ren learns something about that from a doctor who uses stolen cadavers for research. "This man probably saved ten lives today," he tells Ren, who almost faints from the smell of one dead body.

Dr. Milton says you grow used to it, and when Ren asks how, the answer could apply to anything from the smell of dead bodies to the petty crimes of Ren and Benjamin: "How one does anything unpleasant, I suppose. Remove your senses from the process, and look beyond the task at hand. Eventually a kind of numbness takes over, and you find that you can do anything."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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