Christopher Brookmyre

(Little, Brown: £10.99)

Reviewed by Mick Herron

Female cop falls for smart sexy bankrobber, and her investigation rapidly evolves into mutual flirtation. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight. Much the same, though, happens in Christopher Brookmyre’s The Fine Art of Stealing, with the action transplanted to Glasgow, and the bankrobber given a few extra quirks, such as a tendency to keep his hostages amused inventing captions for The Scream and Raft of the Medusa. As things turn out, he may be the robber but he’s not the bad guy, though there’s no shortage of those around.

Brookmyre is not the most disciplined of writers; the first robbery, which would have made a great opening, gets into gear round about page 80, prior to which we have 11 hardly crucial pages on why DI Angelique de Xavia is a Rangers fan, and a further 6 on what happened at the bank’s Christmas party the night before the raid. And while reviewers frequently call him a satirist, the word carries connotations of subtlety of which Brookmyre can’t seriously be accused—he never makes one joke on any topic when he can make three, and his approach smacks more of the shovel than the stiletto.

This makes it sound like I don’t approve. In fact, I always enjoy his books—he’s immensely readable, very funny, and much better (and far more humane) than Hiaasen, with whom he’s usually compared. It’s true that these 400 pages could have been 300, and made a better thriller. But with Brookmyre, that’s hardly the point. Editing might have racked up the tension, but it would have lost a lot of what makes him worth reading, and I’m not just talking about the jokes. Brookmyre has a highly developed sense of social justice, and his shovel is always wielded in a noble cause. Though his vitriol covers a wide range of targets, his antipathies boil down to a simple thesis: he doesn’t like bigots. People, he’s fond of, and that’s the main reason for the sprawl in his books. When he takes a detour here to tell us about the bank’s Christmas party, it’s so we’ll care what happens to Michelle, the bank clerk caught up in the raid.

As for the robberies themselves, they’re exciting and satisfyingly clever; the plot twists live up to the blurb (“Prepare to be misled”); art in general gets a good look-in, and there’s a nicely sly allusion to Robertson Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone. Brookmyre is one of the select few whose work openly acknowledges American roots without descending into slavish imitation (Scots crime writers in general score high on this). As for the similarities to Leonard, well, there are only so many plots out there. And this is at least as much fun as the original.