The Face Thief

By ELI GOTTLIEB

Eli Gottlieb’s The Face Thief opens with a hurtling descent — a woman falls down a lengthy staircase — and ends with a smooth takeoff as her transatlantic flight leaves New York. We don’t know, until the novel’s denouement, how she fell or whether she was pushed. We are never told where her flight will land. But between these two events, Gottlieb constructs a sublime thriller that might have been subtitled “A portrait of the con artist as a young woman.” On a deeper level (and there are many) The Face Thief is also an elegant and profound novel of memory, perception, and reinvention.

“The real reason we have faces,” Margot Lassiter observes, “is to hold back what we’re thinking from the world.” Margot’s business is deception, and Gottlieb, appropriately, reveals her life in fragments as he advances the plot in flashbacks, causing time to stutter as it loops back on itself. This is how Margot’s damaged memory returns, gradually and fitfully, as she recovers from her fall in hospital and rehab, under the eye of a besotted cop. Yet Gottlieb never indulges his cleverness. We are not dazzled by his style. We are instead seduced, from the moment that Margot sights the first of two victims, men we come to know intimately as she reels them in and leaves them floundering.

She meets Lawrence Billings at a seminar he leads on “The Physique of Finance: The Art of Face Reading and Body Language for Professional Advantage.” (Gottlieb’s ear for business-inspirational rhetoric is flawless). Billings, fifty-three and married, has a gift for decoding human behavior. “Even as a boy, he’d understood the commonness of lying. People did it as naturally as singing.” But Margot, a young volunteer from the audience who soon requests private instruction, teaches Billings a new lesson in the old game of seduction and extortion. “She leaned toward him…. He was feeling his own thoughts turning slow, syrupy…” Billings will pay, of course, and far more than he imagines.

John Potash is, for Margot, an easier mark. Middle-aged and blissfully remarried in California, he wants to believe that his substantial nest egg will be significantly enhanced when invested in the firm represented by “Janelle Styles.” Greenleaf, after all, is not some hedge fund but “…a consortium of forward-seeking investment advisers and analysts from elite business schools who roamed the world seeking the latest cutting-edge sustainable products.”

Gottlieb so deftly directs the parallel dramas of Billings and Potash that each has the compressed urgency of a short story. The textures of his characters’ lives — of even minor characters such as Potash’s mother in the Bronx or the eccentric P.I. he hires — rise off the page with tactile intensity. Potash opens “the heavy vault of the fridge door…” A bedside television flickers and drones on “…for hours without consequence, like a drunk at a bar.” Then there is Margot — one of crime fiction’s most mesmerizing grifters — reinventing herself first as a Smith College student, then as a Manhattan style magazine “editor at large…superalert, usually in heels, and gunning it, hard.” Gottlieb draws us so completely into Margot’s mind and the minds of her prey that the identity of a possible avenger (remember those stairs?) seems almost incidental. But he leaves no loose ends as he smoothly accelerates into the final curve, where deed and consequence silkily merge. 

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