The Thief Taker: A Novel

The Thief Taker: A Novel

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by Janet Gleeson

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In the cellar there was no sound at all except her own breathing and the soft rustle of her skirts. After her eyes had grown accustomed to the dark, she noticed a niche in the wall a yard from where she stood. She saw something there about the size of her fist. Agnes quietly picked it up. It was wrapped in a cloth and surprisingly heavy. . . a pistol, the hilt filthy


In the cellar there was no sound at all except her own breathing and the soft rustle of her skirts. After her eyes had grown accustomed to the dark, she noticed a niche in the wall a yard from where she stood. She saw something there about the size of her fist. Agnes quietly picked it up. It was wrapped in a cloth and surprisingly heavy. . . a pistol, the hilt filthy with mud and dirt. Suddenly she heard the chinking sound of glasses nearby. There was no mistaking the voices now. Before she had time to call out, another door creaked open and the pair emerged from the darkness.

Agnes Meadowes is cook to the Blanchards of Foster Lane, the renowned London silversmiths. Preparing jugged hare, oyster loaves, almond soup, and other delicacies for the family has given her a dependable life for herself and her son. But when the Blanchards' most prestigious commission, a giant silver wine cooler, is stolen and a young apprentice murdered, Theodore Blanchard calls on Agnes to investigate below stairs. Soon she is inside the sordid underworld of London crime, where learning the truth comes at a high price.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Following the cabinetmakers of The Grenadillo Box (2004) and the portraitists of The Serpent in the Garden (2005), Gleeson hangs her solid third historical on another group of artisans-a family of silversmiths, the Blanchards, who have fallen on uncertain times in 18th-century London. When an apprentice is murdered, the kitchen maid vanishes and the business's most valuable commission-a huge wine cooler-is stolen, the Blanchards' cook, Agnes Meadowes, becomes the improbable prime sleuth. Meadowes first negotiates with the corrupt character of the novel's title, who's suspected of engineering the crime to profit from recovering the stolen item. She takes a more active role after she begins to suspect an accomplice inside the Blanchard household. Meadowes's eventual success owes more to bravery and doggedness than actual deduction, making her a less interesting sleuth than her fictional peers in the late Bruce Alexander's Sir John Fielding mystery series, also set in Georgian England. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Thief Taker, n. a person who gathers intelligence that leads to the restitution of stolen property. Gleeson (The Serpent in the Garden) sets her third historical fiction mystery in 1750s London, where in one night the cash-strapped Blanchards find their most expensive commission (a silver wine cooler) stolen, an apprentice murdered, and a kitchen maid gone missing. To recover the wine cooler, the Blanchards order their trusted cook, Agnes, to find out who in their employ had a hand in the theft and, so as not as to expose the family to censure, designate her as liaison to their hired thief taker, Marcus Pitt. Introverted Agnes reluctantly accepts the role of detective, and her emotional journey of discovery, as she interacts with her fellow employees below stairs and the seamy characters of London, forms the heart of this novel. Gleeson weaves a suspenseful and romantic mystery that will sweep readers up in Agnes's search, amid various secrets and intrigues, for the wine cooler and, ultimately, justice. Strongly recommended for historical mystery collections. [See Prepub Mystery, LJ 5/1/06.]-Susan O. Moritz, Montgomery Cty. P.L., MD Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In 1750s London, long before there was an organized police force, a cook turns to detection. A widow with one child, Agnes Meadowes feels fortunate to serve as cook for the Blanchards, well-known silversmiths. When the pretty kitchen maid Rose disappears, only Agnes cares enough to investigate. Her job becomes more difficult when a fabulous wine cooler is stolen just before it can be delivered and the apprentice guarding it is murdered. Agnes can hardly refuse when the Blanchards, whose household fortunes are riding on the sale of the cooler, ask Agnes to act as a go-between with the infamous Marcus Pitt. Pitt is an unsavory character, but he can recover the wine cooler for the value of the melted silver. Although her own husband was abusive, and she is shy of men, Agnes falls for Thomas Williams, the apprentice helping her. When Rose is found with her throat cut, Agnes keeps on the case as she fights off the advances of Pitt and finds reason to doubt Thomas. Not even the kidnapping of her son deters the plucky cook from digging until she reveals the truth and loses her post. The latest of Gleeson's erudite surveys of 18th-century life and customs (The Serpent in the Garden, 2005, etc.) includes cooking tips, silversmithing lore and, incidentally, a rousing tale of murder and deceit.

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Chapter Three

Generations of Blanchards had lived and worked in Foster Lane, and their grandly appointed shop had once been London's most fashionable silversmith. The street lay at the heart of the profession that had established the family's fortune. Here stood the great Goldsmiths' Hall, and craftsmen in gold and silver worked and prospered as they had throughout the centuries in the neighboring streets of Cheapside, Gutter Lane, Carey Lane, and Wood Street. The family house next door had been equally sumptuous, for the Blanchards had always considered themselves as being a cut above the craftsmen of other trades. At dinner, they ate off silver plate, with a dozen of the best beeswax candles burning in a pair of Corinthian-columned candelabra. This was no extravagance, argued Nicholas Blanchard: a well-appointed table was a canny business practice. When customers were invited to dine, nothing rivaled serving a perfectly roasted duck on a great oval platter, or a pyramid of syllabubs in trumpet vases, or pickles in scallop shells, to spur commissions.

Theodore Blanchard, Nicholas's only son, felt less certain of the need for ostentation. A year ago, after much prevarication, Nicholas had turned over the running of the business to him. But when Theodore had reviewed the accounts and order books, he had found that the seemingly thriving enterprise was far from profitable. Trade in small silver was dire. With one notable exception -- a gargantuan wine cooler -- no special commissions had been placed for months. Theodore had instigated economies: limited his entertaining; ordered his wife, Lydia, to reduce the household expenditures.

But when Nicholas got a whiff of these thrifty measures, he questioned his son's pessimistic view of the accounts. If the Blanchards were in financial difficulties it could be due only to Theodore's inexperience and inefficiency. Perhaps Theodore would prefer his father to resume control. Meanwhile, whether there were three or thirty at table, he would see his tureens and platters set out, and be reminded of what he had created.

On this particular late January evening, there were no guests at the dark mahogany dining table; the family were dining alone. Theodore took his seat between Nicholas and Lydia, while John, the footman, removed the domed lid of the tureen by its acorn finial, and ladled out the almond soup.

Theodore's appetite was always formidable, and now he slurped a spoonful, savoring the creamy sweetness, noting that Mrs. Meadowes had expertly prevented the soup from curdling and had seasoned it to perfection with a mélange of nutmeg, pepper, bay, and mace. Then he turned to his father. "I wonder, sir, whether you have given further thought to our conversation a week ago?"

Nicholas Blanchard's gaunt, heavily lined face regarded his son. "What was its subject?"

"Moving our business to a more fashionable part of the city. As I made clear to you before, one reason our custom has dwindled is that the city has spread westward. Other craftsmen have begun to decamp. There are now several highly prosperous workshops in Soho."

"And good luck to them," replied Nicholas. "But rest assured, I shall not follow. Since time immemorial the craft has been centered on this very spot. Why should I want to move?"

He continued in the same vein as he had last week and the week before that, and on every other occasion that Theodore had proposed alteration of any kind.

Theodore gulped, and discounted every word. "That is all very well, Father, but nothing stays the same indefinitely. Fashions change, cities alter. The name of Blanchard is not held so high as it once was. If we do not acknowledge as much, and search for a remedy, our business will founder and land us bankrupt in the Fleet. It is my solid belief that our trade would be greatly expanded if we moved west to one of the newer environs. Cavendish Square or St. Martin's Lane, perhaps."

Nicholas shook his head. "What would be the purpose of decamping? So that each day hours are wasted in traveling to and from the hall for pieces to be stamped? So that we lose sight of our rivals and they gain the advantage on us?"

"We have received few sizable commissions in the past months."

Nicholas fixed his steel gray eyes on his son. "What of Sir Bartholomew Grey's wine cooler? The most valuable object we have ever made!"

"Yes sir, but that is the exception -- and at the present time, in my opinion, it is unlikely to be repeated."

Nicholas dropped his knife and fork on his fish plate with a clatter. "How many other silversmiths can boast such a commission? I have said all I wish to on this matter, Theodore. You know my opinion. It is founded on thirty years' experience. Ignore it at your peril and do not expect it to change."

Outside a steady rain had begun to fall. Theodore could hear windows sashes rattling in their frames. The footmen cleared away the dishes from the first course and replaced them with clean ones. Mr. Matthews replenished the glasses with burgundy. Theodore sat morosely, shoulders slumped. He tried to make conversation with his wife and picked over his dish of jugged hare (usually one of his favorites) with a spoonful of cauliflower pickle. But either the hare was too rich or his appetite had been soured by his father's intransigence. And Lydia was not in a communicative mood. After replying to his inquiries after their children, she fell silent.

Copyright © 2004 by Janet Gleeson

Chapter Four

During the night, the gale turned so powerful that the lanterns in Foster Lane were all extinguished. A watchman was paid by various craftsmen to patrol the street and deter any villainy, but at two in the morning, reasoning that no villain would venture out in such inclement conditions, he decided to pass the rest of the night in his bed.

When the city bells chimed half past two, the moon was obscured by a cover of cloud. No one saw Harry Drake step out of Dolly's whorehouse in Cheapside, where he had spent half a sovereign most enjoyably, and creep toward the shadows of Foster Lane. Along the way he darted into a passage and collected a cart, borrowed for the evening from a rag-dealing acquaintance. The cart was empty and easy to push, although the wind hampered his pace. Some minutes later, Harry Drake reached the Blanchards' premises, where he had observed Elsie running off the day before. He left the cart nearby, and huddled in a doorway opposite, his eyes fixed on the Blanchards' shop and his heart thumping in his chest. The wind eddied down the street, moaning like a dying man. But Harry Drake was unperturbed, recalling the information he had gleaned from his daughter, which conveniently supplemented what he had learned elsewhere.

There were three apprentices who slept in the basement of the shop, each of whom had a four-hour watch. They started at eight, twelve, and four o'clock. The apprentice on duty was usually found in the first-floor showroom, keeping guard over the most highly prized pieces of silver, including the one for which Harry had come. He looked up at the three large windows that pierced the first-floor frontage. In one he discerned a yellowish dancing glow of candlelight and an indistinct form. This, Harry assumed, must be the apprentice keeping watch, seated in a chair. Harry had an hour and a half until the apprentice's colleague came to relieve him. What was he waiting for?

Harry took a strip of black cloth from his pocket and wrapped it like a bandage over his nose and mouth, tying it behind his head so that only the slits of his eyes were visible. From another pocket he extracted a length of rope, which he wrapped several times about his fist. Then he dipped into his trouser band and brought out a long-bladed knife. Clutching this tightly, he stepped out from his cover.

On one side of the Blanchards' doorway was the wide, bay-fronted shopwindow, but it was the narrower sash window at street level on the other side to which Harry Drake turned his attentions. He inserted the knife blade between the upper and lower sections of the frame. It was an easy matter to jiggle the blade and give it a swift twist so that the catch sprang back. Harry pushed up the sash, took out a file, and made quick work of a pair of iron bars. He flung his long legs over the sill and slid inside the downstairs showroom.

For a moment, Harry Drake sat on the floor in the pitch darkness to catch his breath and listen. Tension prickled in his spine. He began to unwind the rope from around his knuckles. If the apprentice upstairs had heard his entry, he would hear footsteps on creaking boards, and would be ready. But save for the complaining groans of the gale, he detected no sound.

He removed his hobnail boots and, holding them in one hand, inched forward silently. When he reached the corridor by the front door he put down his boots, then groped his way along the hallway. He slowly mounted the stairs, setting his feet close to the wall so that not a squeak would betray his presence. At the top there were four doors leading off to the left and right of the landing, but he spied the telltale thread of candlelight beneath only one of them. He inched open the door. This was the most perilous moment. He must creep up on the apprentice and silence him before the boy had time to cry out.

The apprentice was seated before the dying embers of the fire. A burned-down candle stub flickered on a table beside him. His head had lolled forward limply; there could be no mistaking, he had fallen asleep on the watch. He could not have made the task any easier if he had tried.

Harry Drake did not dither for an instant. With the stealth of a pirate, in three strides he had gathered a turn of his rope about each fist and positioned himself directly behind the unsuspecting apprentice. He seized the crown of the boy's head and yanked it back so that his neck would be elongated for one swift twist of the rope.

He expected a quick gurgle and a struggle, not the sight that confronted him. But the apprentice's lips sagged open and his tongue protruded from the dark hole of his mouth, swollen and dark. His eyes were wide open and bulbous, as though something had surprised him. Something had surprised him. He was not sleeping. He was dead already, throat cut from ear to ear so deep that his windpipe was severed and his head hung on by no more than a few sinews.

Harry Drake released his grip on the apprentice's head, but the sudden movement caused a new torrent of blood to spurt over the floor, as dark and thick as gravy. He was reminded of the pudding he had eaten earlier that night, and his intestines writhed at the thought of it.

He moved away from the corpse, stepping over the pool of blood that was oozing wider as he watched. He picked up the candle stub from the table and held it aloft, anxiously surveying the silverware displayed about the room. His eyes flickered over all manner of chandeliers, dishes, tureens, and ewers and halted on a hefty sideboard by the door. There sat a massive oval vessel, over three feet long and two feet wide, as big as the copper basin his mother had used for boiling her washing. Only this was not a washing copper.

It was made of silver, adorned with mermaids, dolphins, tritons, and a pair of stampeding horses dragging a naked Neptune from the foamy waves. It was Sir Bartholomew's wine cooler -- the most valuable item ever made in the Blanchard workshop; the largest piece of silver seen in the city of London for many a month; the prize that Harry Drake had come to steal.

He unbuttoned his coat and took out a length of sackcloth, which he laid over the wine cooler then tucked under each scalloped leg in turn, sighing pleasurably at the weight. It was as heavy, he reckoned, as Nelly the whore, who had clung about his waist earlier that night. Putting his hands under the cloth, he grasped the receptacle around Neptune's torso and a mermaid's breast, and careless of whether or not the staircase creaked, hurried downstairs. He recovered his boots and unbolted the door. Then, as brazenly as if he were Sir Bartholomew Grey himself, he went out into the stormy street.

Copyright © 2004 by Janet Gleeson

Meet the Author

Janet Gleeson is the author of the bestseller The Arcanum, as well as Millionaire, The Grenadillo Box, and The Serpent in the Garden. She lives with her family in Dorset.

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Thief Taker 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I do love historical novels and though this one gives lots of details on certain aspects of 18th century London, this book fails to capture the atmosphere, the life of the the city. As a whodunnit, it's disappointing. There are quite too many characters and they all speak the same! Agnes Meadowes is as improbable a sleuth as she is inconsequential. This story bored me and I'm not that easily bored by historical fiction.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I usually can get through a book within two days but this took a week it just dragged. The characters weren't very investing and the plot was dense. I felt like I had to force myself to finish it. It's okay, but I've read much better.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had such high expectations for this book, but I pulled the bookmark at about page 75. That's right about when the 300th character was introduced. OK, not really, but there were way too many characters in this book, and none of them were interesting. I didn't even care whodunit. It was boring, and the main characters were stuffy, pompous and dull. There are much better books out there. Pass on this one.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I bought this as a bargain book, but I would have gladly paid full price. It was well-written with a fast-moving plot and an appealing protagonist. Someone should make a movie based on this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I bought this as a bargain book with little expectations. To my pleasant surprise, it was a richly told story with varied and interesting characters. The author's descriptions of food preparation and duties of household servants were wonderfully detailed. I couldn't put this book down and stayed up late to finish it!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
In the middle of the eighteenth century in London, Widow Agnes Meadowes, mother of a child, cooks for the highly regarded silversmiths, the Blanchards. However, she becomes a bit disturbed when the Blanchards think nothing of kitchen maid Rose vanishing she becomes outraged and disturbed when Rose¿s peers ignore her disappearance. Unable to let it go and with no one to turn to for help, Agnes decides to investigate.--------------- However, her inquiries are on hold when her employers ask for her intervention in a matter. Someone stole a valuable wine cooler just before delivery, killing the apprentice watching it. Agnes negotiates on behalf of the Blanchards with legendary Marcus Pitt to have him retrieve the wine cooler that if not delivered means ruin in return for melted silver. Apprentice Thomas Williams escorts Agnes, who finds her protector kindhearted unlike her abusive late spouse. As she continues to cope with Pitt who wants her thrown into the deal, Agnes continues to search for Rose until her slashed corpse is found. Told to cooperate with Pitt and to drop the Rose matter, Agnes ignores her employer even as her son is abducted and her position as cook is jeopardized.----------------- Janet Gleeson uses a deep look at the mid 1700s English lifestyles of the working and artisan classes as a powerful background to a fine amateur sleuth investigation starring an ethical protagonist. Obstinate Agnes learns a lesson about the dangers of good intentions, as she feels she must uncover the truth about Rose. The story line cleverly blends silversmithing and murder to cook up a delicious historical whodunit.--------------------- Harriet Klausner