Sunday, June 10, 2012
The Thief Taker by Janet Gleeson
There are many things one can reccommend Janet Gleeson's The Thief Taker for, and yet despite all of them, if I were to rate the book on a "star" rating, it would only garner three out of five stars.
It's a little difficult to explain why this is, so much so I had to delay writing this review in order to be able to articulate it well.
After all, the writing is good, if not great. Gleeson, who is a historian and author of two non-fiction books, has clearly done her research and it shows in the nicely embedded details throughout the novel. There are detailed descriptions of Agnes Meadows, the cook, preparing meals for the family, good use of period language (though this is inconsistent--at times, the narration slips into a modern colloquial speech that is rather jarring), and well-entwined reminders that men wore wigs, servants were little more than slaves and London was not always the great, modern metropolis we think of it today as.
The mystery itself is intriguing, if not gripping: After a wine cooler has been stolen from the famous silversmith family of the Blanchards and an apprentice murdered, family cook Agnes Meadows is asked by the lady of the house to look into the murder. Meanwhile, the lady's husband, Nicolas, has asked Agnes to be the liaison to recover the stolen piece from a notorious thief taker.
But for all of that, it was difficult to become completely immersed in the book, partially due to, I think, Gleeson not developing the characters fully.
Meadows, for example, is ostensibly a naive cook who, after being in an abusive marriage, is content to cook and provide a good life for her young son. But her naivete becomes irritating because is seems inconsistent: she is by turns cynical enough to deduce the nefarious motives of suspects but totally oblivious as to what to do about men hitting on her. She is observant about details and yet has no idea how she is being perceived by those around her. She is simultaneously emotionally closed off and yet yields to developing relationships quickly. It should be intriguing, but instead is just maddening.
This doesn't just end with Agnes, either. The thief taker, the most interesting character in the book, is similarly only half-sketched.
As the reader, we are constantly led down a garden path of getting to know any number of characters--the thief taker, the other servants, the household--only to see these threads get dropped. We discover, for example, that the butler is a homosexual relationship with a servant. But for all the time Gleeson spends on this, or the butler, for that matter, it doesn't actually have anything to do with anything. That would be fine if it served as a logical red herring to the mystery, but if it does it is only barely one. Several other characters are treated similarly.
And that's a shame because, as I said, this is one of the most almost great books I've read in quite some time. I don't regret reading it, but I got through the entire thing with a sense of still waiting for it to really begin.
Armchair sleuths will likely figure out what is going on before reaching the end of book and will enjoy the period detail, as I did. But all the same, it is not a truly satisfying read. Instead, it feels more like when one has enjoyed a good, but not spectacular, meal and finds they are still vaguely hungry afterwards.