Books

Steal away for some time with a thief

You gotta love the good thief. From Robin Hood to the Artful Dodger to Cary Grant in the movie about how to catch one, these larcenous scamps and their daring deeds have been an enduring guilty pleasure for readers everywhere for centuries.

Now comes "The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam" (St. Martin's, $23.95, 238 pages), an impressive, very funny debut novel by British lawyer Chris Ewan featuring Charlie Howard, who is the very model of a modern master criminal.

But it's complicated, so pay attention. Ewan's hero, Howard, is a popular globe-trotting mystery writer whose own series hero happens to be a roguish cat burglar/private detective himself. You with me? And as it happens, when he is not writing, Charlie himself dabbles in the odd high-end break-in, usually on a contract basis. If you've got the money, he'll do the crime.

In "The Good Thief," Charlie is in Amsterdam, about to finish his latest caper novel, when out of the blue he gets an invitation on his Web site to meet with a secretive American who has somehow found out about Charlie's sideline job.

Smelling a rat, Charlie initially turns down the job -- to steal a couple of valuable monkey figurines -- but temptation prevails and he succeeds in the heist. When he takes the loot to his client, he finds the enigmatic gentleman beaten to within a centimeter of his life. Before long, Charlie becomes the prime suspect in the murder.

There are some other clever conceits in this slickly plotted little yarn -- like Charlie's relationship with his quirky but naive London agent, Victoria, who thinks she is helping this good thief with plot problems in the new novel when she is in fact advising him about problems with his real-life plot. These quickly include some very dangerous pursuers and a standard-issue femme fatale.

Although there's no telling where Ewan may send his likable hero next, read the book and see if you don't agree that, wherever it is, it must be soon.

From an engaging first novel, we turn to an equally satisfying tale from one of the veterans of American mystery, Margaret Truman's "Murder on K Street" (Ballantine Books, $24.95, 336 pages).

Those who keep up know that Washington's K Street is the home of many of the nation's most powerful lobbying firms. Think Jack Abramoff, et ilk. And Truman, daughter of the late president and a woman who knows her D.C. turf as well as anyone, gets things rolling quickly.

Powerful Illinois Sen. Lyle Simmons, a man with his eye on the White House, comes home from a fundraiser to find his wife's brutally murdered body splayed on the polished marble floor. Like any normal husband faced with such a scene, Simmons immediately gets on the horn to his attorney, a former D.A. who is also Simmons' ostensible friend and one-time college roommate.

He finally gets around to calling the cops, but they have barely left the crime scene when the media circus gets under way. Although the senator's fundraiser speech offers a seemingly perfect alibi, and the cops have their own suspect -- a suave and savvy D.C. lawyer turned lobbyist -- Simmons' daughter dramatically accuses him of murder. Meanwhile the senator's attorney, who has long carried a torch for Simmons' dead wife, has his own suspicions.

Although this is Truman's umpteenth novel set in the capital, it seems remarkably fresh in its insights about politics, intrigue, money and sex in city by the Potomac. She knows and depicts every fork in the road and knife in the back from Georgetown to Adams Morgan to Anacostia and beyond. Depending on your politics, you may finish the book thinking there hasn't been enough "Murder on K Street" -- or that lobbyists are merely the necessary grinders of the legislative sausage that, believe me, you do not want to watch being made.

Those of us who scoffed when Sue Grafton promised, after the phenomenal success in 1992 of "'A' Is for Alibi" that she would write a whodunit titled for every letter in the alphabet, should know that she is almost there. "'T' is for Trespass" (Putnam, $26.95, 387 pages) has arrived.

And if, like me, you got the feeling after, say, "'G' is for Gumshoe" that she was just phoning (or in some cases merely texting) it in, it's time to give Grafton and her doughty heroine, California P.I. Kinsey Millhone, another look. Though set in the 1980s, there is a very contemporary feel about the book, which takes up such now familiar social plagues as identity theft and elder abuse.

After getting involved in caring for an elderly neighbor injured in a fall, Kinsey begins to have disturbing suspicions about the home-caregiver the neighbor's family hires to look after the old man. Turns out the woman is not who she claims to be, having stolen another person's identity, and that she is very cunningly up to no good.

Fans of the series have always been captivated by Grafton's skill in providing only apparently superficial details of the wisecracking Kinsey's personal and professional activities. They will not be disappointed this time; she can be a splendid creation. And though this is a sometimes unusually violent and heartrending story, Grafton follows all the conventions of a classic whodunit to the letter.

Short takes: Best-seller Joe McGinniss ("Fatal Vision") has a riveting new true crime story to tell in "Never Enough" (Simon and Schuster, $25, 358 pages), which details the high profile, and seemingly unrelated, murders of wealthy brothers Rob and Andrew Kissel. In 2003 Rob, a Merrill Lynch investment banker in Hong Kong, suddenly disappeared, and his beautiful wife, Nancy, was charged and later convicted after his body turned up. About two years later in Connecticut, brother Andrew was murdered at home days before sentencing for real estate fraud. McGinnis skillfully demonstrates how, sometimes, you don't have to make this stuff up.

"The Best American Mystery Stories 2007," edited by Carl Hiaasen (Houghton Mifflin, $14, 323 pages), offers what Hiaasen calls stories that "more than transcend the genre of crime, they blow away its nebulous boundaries." You'll find new work from, among many others, Joyce Carol Oates, Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke and Louise Erdrich.

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