The Hidden Keys / Andre Alexis
Toronto: Coach House, c2016.
This is Book 4 of Alexis' planned 5 book set of connected stories. I've read all of them except the very first one, which I keep meaning to go back to -- he's said that they are each written in a different style, playing with genre & philosophical themes.
He's also said that The Hidden Keys was inspired by Treasure Island -- that classic search/adventure story. This book is also about a hidden treasure, and an intrepid treasure hunter, Tancred Palmieri.
Tancred is a professional thief, and in his meanderings around his Toronto neighbourhood he meets up with Willow Azarian, a very wealthy woman with a heroin addiction.
Willow is the youngest daughter of the wealthy Azarian family, and its patriarch has died and left each of his five children a gift, one that is particularly meaningful to them. But Willow is convinced that each of the five gifts, seen together, would provide clues to a bigger treasure. Her father was fond of puzzles and so this makes sense to her. Unfortunately, she is both semi-estranged from her siblings, and treated with condescension and suspicion because of her addictions and history of obsessions over various ideas. So she can't get her hands on everyone's particular gifts: enter Tancred.
Alongside of Willow's Japanese screen, Tancred goes on a quest to steal a painting that plays music, an aquavit bottle, a framed poem, and a model of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Willow plans on decoding the secret messages contained therein; but as it turns out Tancred is left to do most of the deciphering.
He encounters an artist, an old man who made most of the original pieces and has also puzzled over the particularity of each one. And Tancred must also deal with the local drug dealer, a young albino named "Nigger" Colby and his sidekick, Sigismund "Freud" Luxemburg, an oversized psychopath, both of whom feel entitled to lay claim to Willow's hidden fortune as well.
There are riddles, strange encounters, odd places Tancred has to go, and surrounding all of the story there is Toronto. Alexis has traced a map of Toronto with his storytelling, and even if you aren't from there, you will feel very familiar with the neighbourhood when you're through.
There are indeed some hidden keys, both literal and metaphorical, in this story, and there is a treasure to be found. Tancred is an interesting, multifaceted character who manages to live both an honourable and a criminal life, at the same time. Some of the other characters -- Willow, the two drug dealers, artist Alexander von Wurfel, Tancred's friend Olivier, for example -- are also well-drawn and individual. Alexis is a confident writer who is clearly in control of his characters and setting in each of the books I've read thus far.
I could see the Treasure Island inspiration in it, as well as a fleeting cameo by Majnoun from his previous hit novel Fifteen Dogs (nice touch). This was a quick-moving and entertaining novel that I read all in one sitting, and would definitely recommend if you can stand a little bit of violence and a large dash of ambiguity about motivations and morals.
I look forward to Book 5!