THE GOOD THIEF
By Hannah Tinti (Dial Press, 336 pages, $25)
Set in a 19th-century New England so Gothic as to seem medieval, "The Good Thief" centers on 12-year-old Ren, who lives among other orphaned boys at a monastery. Abandoned at the door as an infant, Ren remembers no other life, including how he lost his left hand. He is certain he will never be adopted, but one day a strikingly handsome and elegant fellow picks Ren out of the line as his lost nephew. The man is Benjamin Nab, traveling with a drunkard named Tom. On Ren's first night, the two men steal a horse and wagon from a farm family. He has fallen in among rogues. Ren feels guilty, but he has no choice but to go along with the schemes of his companions, who seem to have chosen him precisely because his maimed appearance makes him an object of pity, and therefore more useful at separating marks from their money. Nab and Tom prove ingenious scoundrels. They pick pockets, sell patent medicines, duck out on debts, run cons of all types. Eventually, Ren discovers Nab and Tom's grisly sideline as grave robbers. They dig up freshly buried corpses and sell them to a doctor eager to learn the secrets of the human body. "The Good Thief" is the kind of novel that makes the term "old-fashioned" a compliment -- tightly plotted, unmannered, irresistible. Tinti writes in a lean, pitch-perfect prose that grabs the reader's mind and won't let go. The incidents she relates are grim, but the telling leaves room for humanity and humor. She populates the story with pungent characters, from the fussy doctor and his God complex to the enormous Dolly, a professional murderer who comes back to life after being exhumed. There's a hidden dwarf, a hare-lipped factory girl and McGinty, the mouse-trap tycoon who runs the town like a bloodthirsty princeling. If "The Good Thief" has a flaw, it's in the resolution of the plot -- but by then readers will be so invested in Ren and his companions they will embrace the wish-fulfillment ending.
CHAUNCEY MABE, SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL
By Janet Evanovich (St. Martin's Press, 310 pages, $28)
Just when Stephanie Plum's adventures were starting to pall, author Janet Evanovich kicks it up a notch. Some of the series' recent books, which have suffered from a certain sameness, have centered on whether Stephanie would stick with her boyfriend, Joe Morelli, or give into the temptation of her occasional employer, Ranger. Enough already! Here we have Lula getting married, Granda Mazur discovering online gaming and a monkey named Carl running loose -- and those are just the secondary plots. In the main story, bounty hunter Stephanie finds herself in the middle of a spat between partners who robbed a bank and stashed the $9 million booty. One partner is losing patience; he snatches the gang leader's sister and threatens to kill her unless he gets the money. Steph tries to figure out the mystery partner's identity and save the hostage. Meanwhile, she tries to haul in a few people who skipped out on bail and works with Ranger as a bodyguard for a washed-up entertainer. Sound like a lot to follow? It really isn't; it's a fun, wild ride that's perfect autumn reading.
JUDY ROMANOWICH SMITH, NEWS DESIGNER