After a few novels in a row that fell into the large bucket of “historical fiction,” I decided I needed to change things up a bit. And, whenever I find myself in the market for a new novel, my inclination is to go to crime. I’m just a massive sucker for a good crime novel, and one of the most consistently satisfying sources of crime stories nowadays is Hard Case Crime, a publisher that specializes in some of the finest crime fiction available, both re-publishing older material and serving up brand new stories, all featuring some wonderfully pulpish covers. I’ve had really good luck with the books I’ve picked up from Hard Case Crime, and when I heard the basic premise of Scot Von Doviaks debut novel, Charlesgate Confidential, I knew that this was going to the exactly the sort of crime-filled palate cleanser I was looking for. A heist story that spans generations sounded very much up my alley, and I was correct! I love heist stories, and this novel delivers that specific story construct wonderfully, but the reason that the novel really clicked with me was the delightful structure of the novel, a wonderful little gimmick that really made this novel work as well as it did.
Charlesgate Confidential tells the story of an art heist in Boston which is kind of based on true events. The story begins when a group of up-and-coming criminals decide to rob a high-stakes poker game for a group of established Boston criminals that takes place in a run-down hotel called the Charlesgate. The three men are pretty quickly caught by the real criminals, specifically a man named Dave T, who kills one of the men and forces the other two, a pair of brothers, to help him steal some paintings from a small, under-guarded art gallery in town. But, the two men, Jake and Shane Devlin, decide to make their own move, and they kill Dave after stealing the paintings. They attempt to hide the paintings inside the Charlesgate itself, before they’re arrested for the murder of a police officer that Dave T had already framed them for, as a bit of insurance. But, that’s not the only story. Because we also find, in the 1980’s, that the Charlesgate had been purchased by Emerson college as a student dorm, and one of the newer residents, a journalism major named Tommy Donnelly has been given the task of writing up the history of the Charlesgate, which has had quite a strange and potentially haunted reputation in Boston, and along the way he encounters an aging man who has just been paroled from prison. Shane Develin.
Devlin tells Donnelly the story of his art heist from forty years prior, initially just to give the boy a new story to tell for his school newspaper, but eventually things take on a more sinister tone. Devlin is convinced that the paintings are still hidden somewhere in the Charlesgate, and he is able to coerce Donnelly into helping him search for the paintings so they can sell the paintings and split the profits. However, as time goes on Donnelly comes more and more aware of the fact that Devlin is psychotic, and he makes it clear that if they don’t find the paintings he’s going to force Donnelly into helping him get the money one way or another. Which, sends us to our third story, in 2014 when the Charlesgate has now become a luxury apartment complex, and home to a woman named Jackie St. John, a former classmate of Tommy Donnelly, who is now a famous true-crime writer. The paintings were never found, but one of the women in charge of the new Charlesgate has been found murdered, and it’s suspected that the killer took her keys in order to continue the search for the paintings. The case is given to Detective Martin Coleman, who starts to believe that the murder, and the break-in of Jackie’s apartment involve the missing paintings as well. And, as we switch between the three stories we find all manner of twists and turns, giving us three distinct but inextricably linked crime stories all revolving around these missing paintings and this one seemingly cursed building.
The idea of writing a novel about a heist that has had historical ramifications is a really great one. I love that this novel took three different time periods, and gave us what essentially became three crime novellas, all linked by one central crime. But, what really made me love this novel was the idea that it wasn’t just dumped off as three different stories. Each chapter we slide around in time, journeying from the 40’s to the 80’s to 2014 and back again, slowly building on each other as we begins to flesh out the larger ongoing narrative, piecing things together and revealing this grand tapestry of crime and deceit that Scott Von Doviak has weaved for us. The novel is wonderfully written, giving us three different stories that are written in different styles, telling very different types of stories, but making them all incredibly satisfying. It’s one of those perfect debut novels, something that he was surely tinkering with for ages, getting the elaborate structure in place and working as perfectly as possible, all while drawing from some somewhat true stories, both of crimes Von Doviak had read about and experiences he himself had in college in Boston. I’m a sucker for heist stories, I’ve talked about that a lot during the course of this site, but I don’t know if I’ve ever quite experienced a story like this that gives us a heist, and then follows almost seventy years to ramifications of the heist, creating a siren song that crosses generations and binds completely disparate people together in one beautifully constructed trap. It’s a hell of a good read, and if you’re in the mood for some pulpy crime I highly recommend checking it out.
Charlesgate Confidential was written by Scott Von Doviak, 2018.
Categories: Page Turners