The Hidden Keys by André Alexis: A hugely enjoyable, sophisticated caper

This is the first book I’ve read by André Alexis. His last novel  was narrated in the voices of its titular dogs which brought back memories of Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, and not happy ones. That said Fifteen Dogs went on to win the Scotiabank Giller prize in 2015 so what do I know? This latest novel is entirely different: a funny, clever and intricately plotted piece of storytelling full of puzzles within puzzles involving an honourable thief, a rich beyond imagining junkie and a treasure hunt.

Tancred Palmieri is a complex character brought up by a single mother whose deathbed wish was that he change his thieving ways. He’s known Willow Azarian for a little while. She’s a junkie, drawn to telling Tancred her story, impressing upon him that she’s an heiress and eventually presenting him with an intriguing challenge. Her stupendously rich father has left each of his five children a memento, something which is of particular significance to them. Willow’s is a beautiful facsimile of a Japanese screen, one panel left blank but for an inscription. She’s convinced that her father has set a puzzle which can only be solved by examining all the artefacts together. Tancred is to steal each one, quietly returning the item once Willow has scrutinised them all. He will, of course, be recompensed. Reluctantly, Tancred agrees and has hardly begun his exacting task when Willow dies. Having given his word, Tancred has no choice but to continue only to find that his best friend is the detective investigating the burglaries and his bête noir, Willow’s dealer, has got wind of what he’s up to together with the reward it might bring. As each piece of this elaborate puzzle painstakingly slots into place, another mystery opens up until finally Tancred is left face to face with himself.

This is a hugely enjoyable novel, a good old-fashioned caper which twists and turns in a baroque fashion as its many conundrums are unfolded. It’s very funny at times – Castle Rose whose designer took his inspiration from M. C. Escher is a particular delight. Alexis excels at elaborate yet flawless plotting, smoothly switching perspective from character to character. The book’s premise reminded me of Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors and its style of Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, both favourites of mine. If there’s any disappointment at the resolution its matched by Tancred’s own and offset by the development of his character. Altogether a delight – packed full with colourful detail and characters, each with a story to tell or be told, and funny with it. I think I should try Fifteen Dogs after all.

13 thoughts on “The Hidden Keys by André Alexis: A hugely enjoyable, sophisticated caper”

  1. This author wins the prize for the oddest character names I’ve come across this year. As for Fifteen Dogs, are you serious that it’s written from a dogs POV??

    1. I’m afraid I am, given the gift of language by Hermes and Apollo after a bet in a bar according to the blurb. However, after enjoying this one so much, I may have to cease my scoffing and read it!

  2. Fifteen Dogs was a weird book. I’m not sure if I enjoyed it or not, but it was certainly different! I loved Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and all of Scarlett Thomas’ books that I’ve read so it sounds as though I should add this to the list – I normally love cleverly plotted books. Thanks for letting me know that André Alexis has a new book out.

    1. If you’re a fan of clever plots this one’s right up your street, Jackie. The weirdness comes as no surprise although I do feel I should give it a go now. It’s very short, isn’t it?

  3. The Hidden Keys isn’t getting nearly as much attention as Fifteen Dogs received, and I’ve been wondering why. I also thought this was a fun book, and have been impressed with how different each of his books have been.
    I know some people haven’t taken to Fifteen Dogs, but I personally loved it. So original.

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