The Adventure of the Castle Thief and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions
- By Art Taylor
- Crippen & Landru
- 228 pp.
- Reviewed by Mariko Hewer
- April 4, 2023
This collection delights and mystifies in equal measure.
When I initially glanced at The Adventure of the Castle Thief and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions, it was the first half of the title that caught my eye. Who isn’t immediately attracted to a tale about a castle thief? As I read through the rest of the stories in Art Taylor’s slim new work, however, I found the “other expeditions and indiscretions” equally appealing. Taken as a whole, the collection offers a sense of unsettling intrigue that’s hard to shake (in the best way possible).
The title story, ironically, ends up being one of the most straightforward but is not without twists and turns. In it, a group of creative-writing students on a school trip to Ireland take up brief residence in an ancient fortress. At first, they delight in the festive mood:
“And here — finally — here the spirit of the holidays still reigned supreme. The smell of cinnamon and orange zest filled the air. Red, gold, and green garlands trimmed the handrails and the mantel above the fireplace. A massive fir stood fourteen feet high or even more, thousands of lights twinkling throughout its branches, a silver star radiant at the top.”
This cheerful spirit is quickly dispelled when people’s possessions start disappearing. Erwin, the group’s chaperone, struggles to understand the thefts (so designated by the students themselves):
“Jealousy seemed a possible motive with Sarah’s scarf, but why would anyone have taken Pierce’s glass? Or Laurel’s notebook and novel? Really, what reason for anyone to steal such a strange array of items?”
There’s a bit of awkwardness to Erwin’s interactions with the only Black student on the trip, who says things such as, “Y’all scared of the black pudding or the black man himself?” and “All these people talking about the Black Irish, but I’m the only brother I’ve seen this whole trip.” These moments feel slightly forced. Still, lovers of mystery can rest assured: The titular thief is identified by the end of the tale, and the items absconded with are returned.
In a less lighthearted piece, “Locked Out,” a middle-aged man who struggles to connect emotionally with his daughter is confronted with a conundrum. He realizes a man and woman are being intimate in the back of a truck with tinted windows but isn’t sure the interaction is consensual. With unfounded fears about his child in the back of his mind, he makes a questionable decision that leads to violence.
Taylor has a marvelous capacity for drawn-out suspense, as in the beginning of “Premonition”: “In the dream, you wander down an endless hallway in a loose nightgown, glancing in door after door, looking for something, looking out for something. Or someone. Your hand clutches a slip of paper, so tightly that your fingernails cut your palm, and on the paper, you can make out a string of blotted numbers.” You’ll have to read it for yourself to learn whose number it is.
One of the most poignant stories in the collection, “Blue Plate Special,” invokes magical mirrors that allow people to look into the past. To the uninitiated, of course, this seems suspicious. “While I finished washing up, I noticed something else,” remarks the narrator. “The men beside me weren’t actually looking at themselves in the mirror but at a slant, each of them, angling their gaze toward the backs of the men behind them maybe or sometimes at an empty urinal. More codes, I thought, but I still couldn’t see who was receiving them.” After he discovers the mirror’s secret, everything changes.
Here and elsewhere, The Adventure of the Castle Thief and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions offers an exhilarating set of excursions and incautions, just like its title promises.
[Editor’s note: Both Art Taylor and Mariko Hewer will participate in the Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 20th. Learn more here.]
Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights on Twitter at @hapahaiku.