Steal the Show: A Willis Gidney Mystery

  • Thomas Kaufman
  • Minotaur/Thomas Dunne
  • 320 pp.
  • July 7, 2011

This time, a private investigator’s personal dilemma gets in the way.

Reviewed by Clyde Linsley

Something is happening to the American private eye, and the jury is still out as to whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

The private investigator in his present form has been a mainstay of American crime fiction since, well, a really long time. Raymond Chandler, one of the progenitors of the tradition, laid out what could be the ground rules for the private-eye game. He must be (said Chandler) a man who walked the mean streets but who was not, himself, a citizen of those streets — in other words, a man alone. Most writers who worked in the genre took this instruction to mean that their sleuths should be “pure,” that is, free from the taint of accommodation and compromise that colored the lives of other mortals, and with few if any emotional ties to the dirty old world around them.

Dashiell Hammett was a master of this form. Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon, turned the woman he (probably) loved over to the law for the murder of his partner ― a man Spade didn’t much care for ― because of the principle of the thing. “I won’t play the sap for you,” Spade told Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Hammett’s other famous sleuth, the Continental Op, didn’t even have a name, an extreme form of social alienation that Albert Camus would have appreciated.

Ah, but lately …

Take Thomas Kaufman, for example. Kaufman’s Willis Gidney has an ex-wife, a girlfriend and other intimates, and he wants more. He had occasion to rescue a little girl from a tragic family situation, and now he is seeking to adopt her, thereby saving her from the tentacles of child-protection officialdom. He knows that system all too well, having escaped from it himself.

It’s this dangerous emotional involvement that creates the crux of this story. He needs money in order to be considered a worthy adoptive parent. To get that money, he takes on a job that he knows he shouldn’t (involving breaking and entering). But now the man who hired him has leverage on him. Other pitfalls are sure to follow.

There’s a subplot concerning motion-picture piracy and trafficking, which is interesting enough, but it’s Gidney’s personal dilemma that holds the real interest here. Torn between his concern for the little girl, his own moral conflicts and his duty to his client, he attempts to make it all come out all right. He succeeds, eventually, to a greater extent than he (or the reader) could have expected.

The McGuffin in the story is probably its greatest flaw: a highly anticipated system for foiling movie piracy that involves transmission of encrypted master copies of new releases to first-run theatres by satellite. I didn’t believe in it for a minute; it sounds like something any eighth-grade hacker could lick in a couple of days of applied code-breaking.

I don’t have the sense that Kaufman believes in it, either; he has some noteworthy experience in the movie business in his resume. But clearly he believes in his protagonist, Willis Gidney … and with good reason. Despite its dubious subplot, Steal the Show is well worth reading.

Clyde Linsley admits that his own private eye, Leo McFarlin, featured in Death Spiral (Avalon, 2000), has a father and mother, a successful sister and various female friends. So sue him. His website,, is currently under development.

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