In the depths of the ill-reputed Green Dolphin bar in Toronto, Tancred Palmieri, a talented thief with extravagant tastes, encounters Willow Azarian, an aging heroin addict. She reveals to Tancred that her very wealthy father has recently passed away, leaving each of his five children a mysterious object that provides a clue to the whereabouts of a large inheritance. Willow enlists Tancred to steal these objects from her siblings and solve the puzzle.
A Japanese screen, a painting that plays music, an aquavit bottle, a framed poem, and a model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater … Are these really clues, or has Tancred fallen victim to the delusions of a junkie?
Inspired by a reading of Treasure Island, The Hidden Keys questions what it means to be honourable and faithful in the face of desire.
Serendipity is a wonderful thing. When you have had the marvellous good fortune to read great books such as Maria in the Moon and All The Wicked Girls, it’s hard to know what to read next. In these circumstances, it’s always going to be the next to read on my TBR pile.
The Hidden Keys was that book and it is just what was needed. Refreshingly different, quite quirky, it is a peculiar and charming mixture of contemporary fiction with almost Dickensian characters. At heart, it is a treasure hunt, with an abundance of clues, each one contained in an object bequeathed to his children by the immensely wealthy Robert Azarian.
Tancred Palmieri is a thief and our protagonist. A thief who these days largely steals to order. He never steals in his own 14th district of Toronto, because that is where his great friend Daniel Mandelshtam is a detective with the police force. An imposing figure, he is a 28 year old black man who has his own set of moral principles and would like to think that he is largely an honourable man.
When, by chance, he meets Willow Azarian, a heroin addict, in a bar in a less than salubrious part of town, she talks about her great wealth. Tancred likes her and is a little intrigued. Thinking no more about her though, he continues on his own path until one night he rescues Willow from being attacked by some thugs. She is moved by his kindness and tells him she will never forget him.
Some time passes, during which Tancred’s mother dies of cancer. Her dying wish was that he change his life and she had tried to elicit both Daniel’s help and that of their other great mutual friend, Olivier to ensure he did so.
Though his grief affects him greatly, Tancred has not changed his ways, but even so the thefts feel emptier now than once they did.
Three years after their first meeting, Willow seeks him out once more to ask him to carry out a task for her. She tells him of the unique items left to her and her siblings. Respectively, a painting, a poem, a Japanese screen, an architectural model of a Frank Lloyd Wright house and a bottle of Aquavit.
Willow believes these are clues to a missing fortune and because her brothers and sisters refuse to indulge her fanciful theories – believing them to be, at least in part, drug fuelled, Willow asks Tancred to ‘obtain’ these items for her so that together they can follow the clues.
However life is never quite as straightforward and into this mix two not so loveable rogues are interjected. A black albino named Colby is Willow’s dealer and he has a sidekick with a brutal streak called Sigismund Luxemburg, known universally as Freud. When Willow dies, these two have also heard her stories of hidden treasures and they are quite clear that they have rights in acquiring such riches.
How Tancred navigates these pitfalls, and how, with the help of an amusing and rather splendidly bizarre character, Alexander von Wurfel, who is a taxidermist to the rich, they find their way towards solving the treasure hunt is a beautifully told tale.
With moments of cold brutality, this is nevertheless a gentle and thoughtful book. Peppered with humour, intricately written, it is quietly full of philosophical moments questioning the nature of good and evil and what it means to be honourable.
Quite different, full of beautifully observed characters and ultimately quite moving, this original story will stay with me for some time to come.
I thought the end was a bit rushed and slightly flat, but overall a delightful read.
The Hidden Keys was published by Serpent’s Tail on 17 Aug. 2017
About Andre Alexis
André Alexis was born in Trinidad and grew up in Canada. His debut novel, Childhood, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Trillium Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His previous books include Asylum, Beauty and Sadness, Ingrid & the Wolf, and, Pastoral, which was also nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
His last novel, Fifteen Dogs, won the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize, awarded annually to the best Canadian fiction book.