Detective Inspector Angelique de Xavia probably expected a few pats on the back for saving Scotland from it's version of 9/11/01 when she prevented terrorists from blowing up a massive hydro electric project. If they had been successful they would have flooded a large chunk of Scotland and killed hundreds of thousands of people in the process.
So when no medals were forthcoming, and the final report on her actions by her senior officers read "Disciplinary action would be inappropriate" she's not feeling replete with job satisfaction. But still, to start dating the man who held you hostage as part of a bank job that left Scottish Police looking like the lamest force this side of the Keystone cops, might be considered a bit of an extreme reaction.
Well so okay she also just turned thirty, and is having all the usual where am I at in my life and career talks with herself. And just in case she wasn't feeling completely emotionally vulnerable, thanks to her little sortie against the terrorists, she now realizes she's killed more men then she's had sex with. Maybe falling for a guy because he's nice to you and has killer blue eyes peeking out from under his clown mask doesn't seem too far off the mark anymore.
To say Christopher Brookmyre's The Sacred Art Of Stealing is not your typical mystery/crime novel is like saying Eric Clapton is not your typical guitar player. Understatement doesn't even come close to describing how off the mark that label would be as a description of what goes on in this book.
Certainly there is suspense mystery plot involved; gangsters blackmailing someone to steal something for them or they kill a third party. There is an intricate and involved plot to steal the item, the police investigation and attempts to prevent the theft from happening – which also means they have to figure out what is going to be stolen and from where- and a huge plot twist at the end which will leave you gasping.
Where it deviates quite radically from the norm is that D.I. Angelique de Xavia and Zal, the brains behind the robberies and the man being blackmailed to do them, develop more then the typical cop and robber relationship. Even more complicated is that each expects the other to do their best to either outwit or stop the other from outwitting him or her.
Just to add a little spice to the deal Zal offers the police that by the end of the night of the robbery that they will be able to not only take down a local Scottish gangster they've been after for a while, but maybe even a big time American crime family. But he's still not going to tell them what he's going to be robbing, how, or when. In return he wants guarantees that the person who they are blackmailing him with is protected from harm not matter how this turns out.
There is a danger in a plot like this of it turning into something superficial; pretty girl cop meets handsome boy robber blah de blah de blah. Complete with a Hollywood movie morality ending of him dying in her arms because it "can never be" or "we're just too different" or some such shit. But in the hands of Christopher Brookmyre that was never going to happen.
First of all neither Zal nor Angelique are throwaway characters. The majority of the book is spent with either one of them alone or the two of them together. We learn that Angelique was tormented horribly as the only Indian/person of colour in her school during primary levels. She built up walls around herself for protection until she could no longer see around them anymore.
Not much changed for her when she became a cop, so she dedicated herself to becoming the toughest cop in her Special Branch division. But even after she's pulled off the spectacular she still finds herself on the outside looking in. No one calls her "Chocolate Drop" to her face any more but still she has bear the brunt of those who would make sure "she can take a ribbing".
For his part, Zal grew up in Las Vegas where his mom was a stripper and his dad was a stage magician. From his dad he learned all sort of tricks that would one day stand him in good stead when he wants people looking the other way. But it was his time in New York City as a member of the League of Failed American Artists that was most responsible for him being in Scotland and meeting Angelique.
Zal and his three buddies had gotten into the habit in New York of stealing bad art and leaving a note behind from the League of Failed American Artists telling people to get taste. That was how they came to the attention of a gangster who decided they would be perfect for ripping off a museum for him. To ensure Zal's cooperation he threatened to kill his father if he screwed it up.
Zal ended up doing three years in Folsom prison and his father ended up dead. Which is why Zal is willing to co-operate somewhat with the police, so that the gangs on both sides of the ocean will be off his back forever.
Zal and Angelique through their choices have both ended up being alone, and neither of them particularly like it anymore. Yet they both get involved with a person who they know there is no chance of them having a long-term relationship with. They are perfectly aware of this from the onset but it doesn't stop them even as it leaves them scared and nervous.
Chris Brookmyre specializes in creating suspense and mystery novels that are replete with humour, satire, and wonderful characterization. The Sacred Art of Stealing is no exception to this standard. His two leads are drawn with the eye of a detailed portrait artist who's not afraid to include a wart or two in his depictions.
On top of that he is also a master storyteller with a fine ear for pacing, so that in spit of long periods of character introspection, it never feels like the story is being bogged down or the plot digressed from. The two leads are so integral to the plot that we must know as much as possible about them so we can attempt to keep abreast with the goings on.
Of course we do have an advantage over Angelique as we know what Zal's plans are, well most of them anyway, well before she does. But it's still her who works her way through the triple bluff to see what is actually going on.
Christopher Brookmyre is not your typical mystery novel writer or even typical writer. With The Sacred Art of Stealing he cements his reputation as a novelist who can skewer societal holy cows with barbs of sarcasm, create characters so real that you can see them in front of your eyes as they talk (and even hear the sound of their voice) and write plots original and fun.
I should warn you that he has no fear of using Scottish slang, and writing in dialect, and that he is inclined towards using the more colourful spectrum of English vocabulary. If you are a little squeamish there are probably going to be places where you are going to want to just skim through, as he is very thorough in his descriptions of crime scenes.
But don't let any of that stop from you picking up The Sacred Art Of Stealing or any of his books, they are still the best roller coaster rides on the market.
(Originally published June 2006)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.