Book review: The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

Vita set her jaw, and nodded at New York City in greeting, as a boxer greets an opponent before a fight.

Fresh off the boat from England, Vita Marlowe has a job to do. Her beloved grandfather Jack has been cheated out of his home and possessions by a notorious conman with Mafia connections. Seeing Jack’s spirit is broken, Vita is desperate to make him happy again, so she devises a plan to outwit his enemies and recover his home.

She finds a young pickpocket, working the streets of the city. And, nearby, two boys with highly unusual skills and secrets of their own are about to be pulled into her lawless, death-defying plan.

From the rooftops of Paris to the frozen wilds of Russia, Katherine Rundell is known for her ability to bring places and time periods to life. In her latest book, The Good Thieves, Rundell transports readers to 1920s New York – a city of grimy streets and hidden tunnels, where pickpockets tussle for territory and gangsters rule over an illegal network of speakeasies and smugglers’ dens.

Into this world arrives our heroine, twelve-year-old Vita Marlowe. After discovering that her grandfather has been cheated out of his family home, Vita devises a plan: break into the fortress-like Hudson Castle, find the emerald necklace buried in its grounds and bring conman Victor Sorrotore to justice. She is aided in her quest by three unlikely allies – animal whisperer Arkady, acrobat Samuel and lockpicker Silk. With Sorrotore’s lackeys following their every move, Vita and her friends must use all of their wit, cunning and nerve to navigate the dark underbelly of New York City and stop Sorrotore completing his own dastardly plan…

The Good Thieves is a rousing read. By pitting Vita as a Robin Hood figure, leader of her own band of good thieves, against the deadly Sorrotore, Rundell creates a fascinating morality tale, a joyous triumph of good over evil. While readers will quickly fall for Rundell’s supporting characters, particularly Arkardy and his array of loyal animals, it is Vita who they will remember. Left with a misshapen foot after contracting polio as a child, Vita refuses to be held back. She is a character of true grit, a knife-throwing, clue solving hero whose incredible ingenuity propels the story – and its central heist – along.

Suitable for ages 9 and upwards, The Good Thieves would make an ideal class read; its depiction of race, class and disability opening the story to discussion, with readers moved to see how the perceptions of society have (or have not) changed. It is also an adventure to be read alone, late at night, when the world is tipped toward danger and the story of a remarkable girl facing off against a great injustice in her bright red boots has the power to make us all feel a little more powerful.

In short: a thrilling heist. Thoroughly recommended.

Review by ELS librarian Samantha

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