Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

Prince of Thieves

Chuck Hogan


US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0 -7432-6455-x

Publication Date: August 15, 2004

Date Reviewed: March 1, 2005

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2004




Hogan's latest novel is being compared to Dennis Lehane's 'Mystic River' for its south Boston setting and combination of gritty crime and compelling character, or to Richard Marinick's 'Boyos' for the same reasons. These are heady comparisons indeed, and of help in giving guidance to a reader wondering if this book is for them. But they're not to be taken too literally. It's what Hogen puts on his pages, his unique view of the culture and criminals in this small section of the world that should define this book. 'Prince of Thieves' is a dark, sometimes violent, and frequently exhilarating novel of friendship and failure that carves a unique story from familiar terrain.

'Prince of Thieves' is about four Irish-American boys -- lifelong friends and lifelong thieves -- from Charlestown, Mass. Charlestown is an ethnic, blue-collar Boston-Irish neighborhood known, or renown, as the premier breeding ground of bank robbers and armored car thieves. Doug MacRay, their leader, is contemplative, conflicted and cunning; Jem is a hard-drinking, hard-drugging, trigger-happy wild boy; Gloansy is the ever-enthusiastic go-along, and Dez is the nerdy one who doesn't ever quite manage to fit in. The foursome is long on camaraderie, long on cunning, long on guts, but short on options and, well, they're heading for trouble.

Doug falls for Claire Keesey, the manager of a bank these thieves recently robbed. He knows he's an ex-con, ex-alcoholic and professional thief, not the most desirable credentials for a suitor-to-be, but she doesn't. Also on the scene is FBI Agent Adam Frawley, a bank-robbery specialist on the trail of this gang of four. He, too, falls for Claire. While Doug ponders abdicating his crown as "prince" of these thieves to live happily ever after with Claire, Frawley vows to send the lot of them off to the live happily ever after with Claire. It's a safe guess that at least one of them is going to be thwarted and that happily ever after won't find its way untarnished into anyone's scenario.

Hogan's story is lengthy and meaty, a tri-level novel built of equal parts local atmosphere, conflicted characters and action-packed heists, all told with substantive detail and narrated in Hogan's stylish prose and clever turns of phrase. He describes the Charlestown neighborhood, an uneasy coupling of old-time working class Irish families and increasingly well-to-do young professionals, with realism and detail that make it brim with life. And he delves inside the major characters with equal energy, probing and puncturing, ultimately extracting their innermost thoughts, their deep-seated fears and most troublesome conflicts. The heists, and there are several, are pure escapist capers, painstakingly planned out, well-cased, and well rehearsed. It's Robbery 101, with intricate and believable detail and enthralling realism. Should you ever contemplate robbing a bank, you'd do well to read the first chapter. But then, of course, you'd do well to also read the last.

Underlying the vividly painted setting, the well-developed characters and the dramatic robberies is the shadow of darkness. The neighborhood is a friend and foe, its own kinds of dysfunctional family that defies change and traps its inhabitants in patterns of behavior that are self-defeating and unsatisfying. Childhood ties nourish but ultimately bind too tightly and the life of crime, while exhilarating and vital, is but another trap. These four men are ever-so-good at breaking in, but finally, incapable of breaking out.

Rock 'em, sock 'em action addicts will find this book overly long and the travails of character repetitive, while detail detectives will notice a few particulars that miss the mark. 'Prince of Thieves' is ultimately a sad and dark novel of desperation, opportunities missed, lives wasted and destinies all but fated to end badly. You'll leave this world feeling sad and sorry, but unwilling to have missed the experience.