Originally published August 4, 2011 at 7:07 PM | Page modified August 5, 2011 at 9:36 AM

Book review

'The Good Thief's Guide to Venice': danger in gorgeous, dilapidated Venice

British author Chris Ewan's mystery "The Good Thief's Guide to Venice" takes its hero/thief Charlie Howard to Venice, where he's asked by a beautiful woman to deliver a mysterious briefcase to a luxurious palazzo. Complications ensue. Ewan visits Seattle Mystery Bookshop at noon Friday, Aug. 12.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Chris Ewan

The author of "The Good Thief's Guide to Venice" will appear at noon Aug. 12 at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle; free (206-587-5737 or
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Charlie Howard writes crime novels about a thief. Charlie Howard is himself a thief. And Charlie Howard is being blackmailed by a thief.

This triangular structure forms a pleasing symmetry — and some big fun — in "The Good Thief's Guide to Venice" (Minotaur, 385 pp., $24.99).

Author Chris Ewan, a Briton who lives on the Isle of Man, relates Charlie's capers with gusto. Like his writer/thief hero, Ewan also holds down two jobs: writer and lawyer. (Insert here your own joke about any differences between lawyers and thieves.)

Charlie is a self-deprecating and wry fellow with some peculiar habits. He moves to a new city whenever he starts a book. (The Venice caper is the fourth in a series, the others being set in Amsterdam, Paris and Las Vegas. Researching these things is a gig any red-blooded writer, fictional or otherwise, could get used to.)

Charlie also has an overriding superstition: Wherever he is, he hangs his prize possession, a specially framed first edition of Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon," above his desk. Without it, he can't write for beans.

So it's a major crisis when Charlie settles in Venice, determined to stop being a gentleman thief and concentrate on writing — only to be disturbed one night by a cat burglar. Not that the intruder is subtle about it — in fact, the mysterious intruder makes a point of raising a ruckus. Clearly, Charlie is meant to see immediately that his place has been burgled — and that the only thing missing is his precious book.

Left behind in its place is a flyer that advertises a shop specializing in book restoration. It's the first in a series of clues that lead Charlie to the burglar who broke into his place. It does not escape Charlie's notice that she is a stunning beauty.

The mysterious woman, who calls herself Graziella, has a proposition for Charlie: In return for getting back the book, he has to take a briefcase to a certain luxurious palazzo — the home of a glamorous prince — and leave it in a certain safe. This seems easy enough, if a little odd — why can't the mystery woman deliver it herself? But Charlie has no choice — and he agrees to the assignment.

There's just one thing: Graziella tells Charlie that under no circumstances is he to open the briefcase. Naturally, the warning instantly causes its contents to become catnip. Charlie easily breaks into the count's fabulous home and cracks the walk-in safe, which is filled with priceless treasures. Then he allows himself one teeny little peek into the briefcase — and is nearly killed when it explodes. Charlie is not pleased. He spends the rest of the book chasing the elusive Graziella and trying to figure out what's going on — a process that includes getting his book back.

The writer's agent/friend/possible love interest, Victoria, is in town to read Charlie's new manuscript, so she comes along for the ride. Their adventures take place in a nicely evoked Venice, with its dilapidated but gorgeous buildings, quietly self-contained neighborhoods, touristy intrusions (St. Mark's Plaza, gondolas, pesky tourists) and seductive charm.

The big question is: Where is Charlie headed next? He's already done Amsterdam, Paris, Vegas and Venice ... Tacoma, anyone?

Adam Woog's column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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