- The Washington Times - Friday, April 2, 2010


By Robert Goddard

Bantam, $15

432 pages


By Thomas Kaufman

Minotaur, $24.99,304 pages


The arrival of the late Uncle Eldritch comes as a surprise to his nephew Stephen Swan. Especially when it turns out that the relative with the Dickensian name not only didn’t die in the Blitz three decades earlier, but was in prison in Ireland and won’t explain why.

As Robert Goddard tells it in “Long Time Coming,” Uncle Eldritch lives up to a reputation both exotic and sordid as he emerges as the stealthy star of a thriller that spins with remarkable smoothness between Nazi-dominated Europe and a peacetime era. Stolen art is the link binding the plot, yet it is the irrepressible Uncle Eldritch who slinks in and out of the story at his own time and pace and gets away with it. As he puts it, “Thirty six years in prison sucks all the pride out of you.”

He is perhaps the ultimate con man, and rather likable in spite of his shortcomings. Not that he is at first willing to recall much about his past life. As Mr. Goddard notes, “Information about virtually any aspect of his life was off limits. Anecdotes culled from his many travels - climbing pyramids in Egypt, playing polo in India, shearing sheep in Australia - were his stock in trade. But they revealed nothing about him even if they were true.”

Of course, as Stephen discovers, Uncle Eldritch has a great deal to tell and to hide. Like claiming a substantial reward for the restoration of millions of dollars’ worth of Picassos to the American descendants of one Isaac Meridor, a diamond merchant drowned when his ship went down as he tried to escape the Nazis. To further complicate the situation, some of the Picassos have been forged by Desmond Quilligan, a fervent Irish patriot and supporter of the IRA who also wound up in an Irish jail.

It is a complex plot in which Stephen finds himself drawn into a tangle of faked art, stolen art and also Rachel Banner, an attractive young American who is the granddaughter of Isaac Meridor and also on the track of the missing paintings.

Uncle Eldritch, of course, has developed a new lease on life, in which he manages to exist in luxury hotels while evading enemies from the past on both sides of the English Channel. Rachel shares Stephen’s distrust of Uncle Eldritch, yet they both recognize that though it would be difficult to approve of his methods, there is a certain style to how he gets things done. It comes as no surprise that in the end, justice is done and Uncle Eldritch is heading happily for retirement and probably more mischief on the Riviera.

Mr. Goddard’s expert characterization and stylish prose bonds with sardonic plotting to carry the book, a good choice as a companion on a trip.

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“Drink the Tea” is a slam-bang thriller set in Washington, and what makes it so readable is the colorfully drawn and entertaining Willis Gidney, a fast-talking rogue who uses the dubious skills he learned as a child in a brutal juvenile facility in his work as a private detective. While he takes his work seriously, he doesn’t take himself seriously, and even the violence has a rambunctious cast to it.

It’s fireworks throughout, and some of the bad guys die, and some of the good guys die. Thomas Kaufman has a prose style that moves like a speedboat.

Mr. Kaufman has won awards for his work as a movie cameraman and director with a focus on the law-and-order genre. He has applied the same talent to hard-boiled fiction that probably contributes to the credibility of his characters, ranging from the inimitable Gidney to Captain Shadrack, who became a foster father to a child with neither home nor friends and, even worse, no desire to seek any. It is from Shadrack that Gidney absorbs the smidgen of ethics that allows him to become a private investigator endowed with the talents of a street criminal.

He is also loyal to friends such as jazz saxophonist Steps Jackson, who makes a strange and sad request that Gidney find a daughter lost for 25 years. It is a bleak quest because Jackson lost track of the child’s mother and never knew she was pregnant. It proves a path full of pitfalls and peril for Gidney. There are murders and beatings and brutal flashbacks to Gidney’s dismal childhood. The denouement provides a brutal twist to the search for the saxophonist’s daughter.

Sadly, it turns out that Jackson wouldn’t want to find her.

It’s all you would expect from a thriller with a cutthroat edge to it. Even better, it’s a thriller with a dark sense of humor. Mr. Kaufman and his Willis Gidney are a welcome addition to the ranks of private investigators who even run the risk of getting knifed by little old ladies.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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