- Post by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana
In 1922, an as-yet-unpublished Ernest Hemingway asks his wife Hadley to pack up all of his stories and meet him in Switzerland. While waiting for her train in the Gare de Lyon station, Hadley leaves the suitcase unattended to buy a bottle of water; when she returns, the suitcase has vanished, never to be seen again. This legend is the inspiration for Shaun Harris’ debut novel, The Hemingway Thief.
At the beginning of the novel we meet Henry “Coop” Cooper, a novelist struggling with a literary identity crisis. He has achieved a level of fame writing a series of 32 romance novels under the nom de plume Toulouse Velour and featuring Scottish vampire Alasdair McMerkin, and his agent is pressuring him to write number 33. But Coop is tired of “Scots, vampires, and genital euphemisms” and is anxious to try publishing under his own name. At his agent’s urging, he is taking a short break in Baja.
One evening, he and Hotel Baja owner Grady Doyle are lounging in the cantina and sipping run with lime when a drunken tourist is roughed up by two thugs. Grady steps in to help, and Coop joins him for the sake of a good story. The drunk turns out to be Ebbie Milch, a small time thief on the run in Mexico because he has stolen the never-before seen first draft of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast from a wealthy rare book dealer.
The manuscript may reveal clues to the whereabouts and contents of Hemingway’s lost suitcase, so Coop and Grady set out with Milch and hotel “handyman” Digby to locate this rare literary prize. But they aren’t the only ones in pursuit of the legendary writer’s lost work, and their venture soon becomes deadly.
The novel is an absolutely fantastic thrill ride of adventure. Coop and his ragtag bunch escape one close call after another and the body count rises as they draw closer to finding the suitcase. There are plenty of thugs, guns, wild rides, drugs, and booze.
But this is a crime spree story for book lovers. Our hero is a writer, the villain is a rare book dealer, and their quest is the pursuit of a literary treasure. Coop explains his motivation for continuing the hunt in spite of the danger: “I am not just a writer, but also a reader. I have a voracious appetite for the written word that borders on addiction. Surely, just as the dipsomaniac is unable to stop until the very last pour from the bottle, I cannot stop a story until it is done. I must know how it ends…I must finish the bottle.”
And the writing is outstanding. While the action sequences are described in a simple, direct style (much like that of Hemingway himself), the book includes descriptive passages about the setting and characters that suck the reader right in: The night sky “looked like sugar spilled over dark linoleum.” The breeze “blew over the lush blades, kneading them into waves that seemed to rise, crest, and crash against twin mesas….ascending from the sea like a couple of raging Poseidons.” A character’s voice “sounded like pure maple syrup and had a rhythm to it that made the simple phrase sound like a soul song.”
Unbelievably, The Hemingway Thief is Shaun Harris’s debut novel. I for one can’t wait for more from this new voice in crime fiction!
You can find copies of The Hemingway Thief on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.