It's entirely fitting that my first book review should be for my dear friend, partner in crime, collaborator, and fellow member of the Writers of Mass Distraction, Norma Beishir. And since I'm always a fan of a good heist story, it's fitting that Angels At Midnight be the subject at hand.
Norma published the book during her days with Berkeley, and gives us two very sympathetic protagonists we can immediately connect with in an intricately plotted, well paced novel that explores themes of love, family, loss, revenge, and how far people will go for their own measure of justice. While our protagonists don't actually meet until halfway through the book, that's a good thing, as we get to follow them along parallel lines for more then a decade, getting to know them, sharing their triumphs and their despair.
Collin Deverell is one of two twin sons, heir to a fortune that his father, an oil tycoon, expects him to take part in. While his brother Justin readily involves himself in the family business, Collin has little wish to tie himself down to an executive life, preferring a carefree life of adventure and his love of fencing. With the sudden death of their parents on a business trip, Collin takes the chance to live life on his own terms, turning over shares in the family company and all responsibility to his brother in exchange for the family mansion, the art collection, and his mother's jewellry. He lives abroad for some years, rarely settling down, living his carefree life, seducing whatever woman crosses his path. When he returns home, he finds that the valuable paintings and jewels have all gone missing, sold off by his devious brother. Collin vows to take back what's rightfully his, even if it means breaking the law and going after some very dangerous people to do it.
Ashley Gordon is an artist from the Napa Valley in California who establishes a career for herself in San Francisco. After becoming a success in the art world and on the social circuit, she falls in love with Brandon Hollister. They're happy together, and Brandon wants to marry her, though she's puzzled by his complete estrangement from his parents. When we meet them, it's not hard to understand: Bradley and Claudia Hollister are downright nasty to the core. Ashley and Brandon marry, have a son, Robert and are happy together, until Brandon is killed in a plane crash. In the wake of her grief, Ashley is hit again when her in-laws launch a custody battle for their grandson, using bribery, lies, and their connections to take him away from Ashley. Ashley is, understandably, devastated.
It's into this mix that Ashley and Collin meet. Collin's been busy recovering what was stolen from him by becoming a thief himself, learning the trade from a master who saves his life. What started out for him as a mission to take back what's his becomes something more, as he discovers his father's company has been mismanaged by his brother, and is falling into the hands of a criminal syndicate who are readily dismantling it. The syndicate are made up of the same people who have possession of his property, and what began as thefts to recover property gradually shifts, as Collin realizes he does, in fact, have a responsibility to save the company his father built. And since Bradley Hollister is a member of the syndicate, Collin decides to enlist his former daughter-in-law as a partner to bring down the syndicate, save his family company, and restore Ashley's son to her custody.
It's a wise decision to keep the two from really meeting until mid way through the book. We, the reader, get to see both characters develop fully on their own, so we care about them and what happens to them (Ashley's loss of her husband and her son are particularly painful, which is one of the reasons the book works so well). When Collin and Ashley start working together, we see a growing connection between them, an emotional intimacy that comes across as very real. This is a testament to how human the two characters feel. They have depth, quirks, and flaws. As Ashley learns the tricks of the trade, of sleight of hand and the use of disguise, she and Collin find themselves drawn closer and closer. The bond and growing love between them comes across to the reader as the real thing. We come to root for them to achieve all they're after, and it's because of how well both of them have been written.
In every heist story, to root for the person pulling off the heist, it requires that the target be unsympathetic. Certainly having the target be a criminal syndicate is a very good way of having the reader dislike the target. And the primary targets, Bradley and Claudia Hollister, are more then worthy of our dislike. Both of them, particularly Claudia, are cruel and malicious. It's not hard to understand why their son broke ties with them, and as readers, we want to see them brought down, broken, and defeated.
Justin Deverell is another interesting character in the book. Early on it felt like he'd be the primary antagonist of the book, but as things go on, it's made clear that he's the dupe, the tool for the syndicate to dismantle the family company after they're done using it. I enjoyed the premise Norma used that Collin and Justin aren't the kind of twins we're used to in fiction... they have nothing in common but blood, barely speak for years, and ultimately are so far apart that it's doubtful they'll ever bridge that gap. There's no closer then blood mental connection sort of bond between these two twins, and it's a refreshing change.
There is a wild card sort of character I thought I'd make mention of. Anton DeVries, an insurance investigator, lurks in the background of the story. He first comes into the picture after Collin discovers the theft of his possessions. Through the rest of the book, he suspects Collin, looks for proof, and takes part in a pivotal moment towards the climax. He's an interesting character, something of a bloodhound, or a Javert to Collin's Valjean. DeVries is a good adversary, conflicted by catching a man who he knows to be morally right.
The attention to detail throughout the book is spot on, and perhaps never as much as during the various thefts that take place in the book. From training sequences in which both Collin and Ashley learn how to become thieves to the heists themselves, each act feels intricate, and brings a lot of variety to the table. An escape from a time lock safe and a judicious use of a mirror stand out particularly for me during the theft sequences. And the attention to detail also reflects itself in the early sequences featuring fencing and the artistic process.
Angels At Midnight is a beautifully written book that you'll enjoy reading. The plot and pacing of the novel keeps the reader on the edge. The details drawn out in the book about technique, places, and situations give it a very real world sensibility. And the characters really make the novel. Collin and Ashley are a winning couple that we can't help but sympathize with, to root for, and to cheer.
And who knows? Perhaps Robert has siblings... and all of them have grown up to take after Ashley and Collin's habit of breaking into high security vaults....