The Hemingway Thief
(Seventh Street Books)
Harris' debut is a crime thriller and Mexican caper novel that is played more for laughs than tension and suspense, despite its tortuous plot and large cast of disreputable characters: con men, outlaws, cartel thugs, dope dealers, hit men - - and women - - a sadistic aristocratic book dealer and other nefarious types
The dialogue is peppered with smart-ass wit and and hip pop-cultural references, even the villains are too quick to offer a quip to be truly considered real bad hombres. But the setting, the physical and cultural landscape is a joy for those of us who know and love all things Mexican: sunbaked canyons and rock-strewn arroyos, lofty bluffs and weird mesas, surf pounding white-sand beaches, ramshackle hotels and tawdry cantinas.
The book is predicated on a famous literary mystery: Paris, 1922 - - - Ernest Hemingway asks his young wife, Hadley, to pack up every last scrap of his work into a single suitcase and join him in Switzerland. While Hadley waits for her train in the Gare de Lyon, the suitcase containing a year's worth of Hemingway stories vanishes, never to be seen again.
Henry "Coop" Cooper, the narrator and protagonist, is an American novelist brooding over his career in a rundown Baja hotel bar, where he's taking a break on his agent's orders. When his first literary novel was soundly panned, he turned to writing vampire romance novels under the nom de plume, Toulouse Velour, which are immediate bestsellers, to his unending embarrassment and his agent's delight. This body of "chick lit" featuring Coop's Scottish vampire detective, Alistair MacMerkin, is so convincing and popular that virtually everyone assumes the author is a woman, or at best, "some fag [who] writes cheap chick books." (Students of the arcane English lexicon will know that a "merkin" is a pubic wig.)
"I'm tired of people thinking I have a vagina," Coop tells his agent, to which the agent responds, "You whine like you do." Coop is more than a little defensive about it, snapping with equal ferocity at the frequent episodes of gender misidentification and any mention of John Grisham.
So here he is drinking rum and contemplating how to kill off his golden goose and escape from pseudonymous pulp-romance purgatory, when Coop and his new drinking buddy Grady Doyle, a former DEA agent and owner of the hotel, intercede to stop the brutal beating of a helpless American drunk by two thugs. The drunk is Ebbie Milch, a small time thief on the run in Mexico because he has stolen a never-before-seen draft of Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast" from a wealthy rare book dealer.
But the manuscript might be more than just a rare literary treasure; It could reveal clues to the contents or even the location of the lost suitcase. For Coop a search to unveil the mysteries could be the very adventure to inspire his new novel, restore his self esteem and rehabilitate his literary standing.
And so the plot is off and running. Grady, Coop, Milch and Digby, the hotel's enigmatic handyman, are off on the chase. But soon Coop realizes some sobering realities: A love of alcohol is not the only thing Milch has in common with Hemingway - - - his uncle Ebenezer Milch was the one who made off with the suitcase and that he ended his days in Mexico. Not surprisingly, more and more people become book lovers once they realize the value of the manuscript and will stop at nothing to get their hands on it. Digby has an unusual familiarity with the cartel-infested badlands that they must navigate and the outlaws who inhabit it - - - and he, Coop, is woefully out of his depth here. Not only do they have to find clues to the elder Milch's Mexico sojourn, they also have to outrun the growing number of people who want them dead. "You come with me, Coop. Mr. Doyle and Milch can hang out here and keep watch just in case," Digby decides when they pull up at a shabby bar in the remote town of Tequilero.
"Why can't I come in." Milch said, rousing himself from his slumber.
"Because Coop is a writer. That'll be our in."
"A writer?" Milch said. "look man, if you need a writer I can play a writer."
"Not in there you can't . . . They'll smell the grift on you. You won't get four words out before they slice open your throat and pull your tongue through the hole."
A crew of four Mexicans sat at a table in the corner. It was not yet seven o'clock and they did not look like early risers. It must have been the end of a long night or series of nights. They were going through the motions of playing cards, but if it was poker then it was a version with which I wasn't familiar. One of them sat with his head back staring at the ceiling, and half of the cards in his hand were facing the wrong way. The other three noticed our entrance with casual interest.
The bartender sat on the bottom step of the staircase reading a newspaper when we approached. He was a thin man with a sparse beard and an apron that looked like a work from Pollack's late period.
Harris excels in the description of the secluded Mexican locales and the crusty characters encountered there. Here is Elmo, who helps move the plot forward: "His accent was old, southern, and aristocratic, but the gentility had been watered out of it, like a good bottle of booze cut just once too often. In the firelight I could see he had one of those faces that was impossible to put an age on."
As for Ernest Hemingway, the author doesn't appear to like him very much, probably because of his super-macho posturing, which Harris ascribes to his insecurities, if not latent homosexuality.
Hemingway did have a decent job, a loving wife, and an interesting life in a major European city. If he had been an ordinary man it would have been more than satisfying, but Hemingway was not an ordinary man. He was a writer. Few professions draw such insecure, narcissistic, paranoid, depressive, and needy applicants as the writing life. The need to be published, to be validated, churns in the writer's breast like a non-stop manic engine. The writer's waking life is filled with dreams of success and his sleep is plagued by nightmares of failure.
"A lot of historians think he had hemochromatosis. His body couldn't process iron and it affected his brain. It's why he put a shotgun in his mouth in Idaho."
"Then again just being in Idaho was probably enough to make him blow his brains out."
Toward the end of the book, Coop explains that writers start off bad and, if they're lucky, get better as they go. The Hemingway Thief is a promising first novel and we have every reason to believe that Shaun Harris will only get better.