Published: Gollancz, 2006
From mythological characters such as Anansi, Loke and Odysseus onwards, quick witted thieves have always been a source of entertainment in our culture. Current favourites such as Ocean's Eleven and its sequels and Hustle indicate that the tradition of the clever caper is still alive and enjoyed by many. While blacker than either, The Lies of Locke Lamora is basically a fantasy genre version of the film or TV series.
Locke Lamora is the leader of the Gentleman Bastards (and this novel is the first in a series named after them), a small gang in the busy city of Camorr. He pays his dues to the chief of thieves, or at least, the Capa Barsavi thinks he does. For the Gentleman Bastards are not the cat burglars they pretend to be, but play the long con; not only that, but they break the most important rule of the Camorran underworld: they choose their victims from the aristocracy. Through much of this novel, they are involved in a complex scheme to which involves simultaneously deceiving their victims about a famous brandy but also posing as the Camorran secret police, telling their victims that the brandy scheme is a scam but that the Duke wishes them to carry on giving the con artists the money they ask for. However, they get caught up by another, wider, scheme which they did not initiate and which they have no desire to be involved in: a new power has risen in the underworld, the Grey King, and he is about to attempt to overthrow the Capa Barsavi. Having found out the Gentleman Bastards' secret, he is able to blackmail them into reluctantly helping him. Like underworld takeovers in the real world, this is an extremely nasty affair, with a great deal of unpleasant violence that Lamora would rather avoid if he could.
The success of The Lies of Locke Lamora illustrates many of the requirements of the caper story. The most important of these are requirements that help the reader like and identify with the criminals. To do this, the main characters need to be likeable and charming, with at least some moral sense. It is particularly important that their victims are not very nice; rob the rich and unscrupulous but leave the virtuous widow her life savings. After that, the reader has to be interested; the schemes in caper stories (whether novels, TV programmes or films) are generally very complex, often having two or more levels of backups (such as Locke posing as a secret police agent here). It is particularly vital that they obtain their loot by cleverness, not by force (though the most famous thieving hero, Robin Hood, doesn't conform to this requirement).
The Lies of Locke Lamora does all this very well indeed. There is nothing particularly new or innovative about it - the Camorran setting is so old fashioned it is of the type parodied in the earliest of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels more than twenty years ago. However, it is extremely well done, and consistently exciting, clever and amusing. I seem to have read a lot of excellent fantasy written in the last couple of years; and this takes its place with the best of it.