‘The Hemingway Thief’ offers historical fiction, mystery

“The Hemingway Thief” by Shaun Harris; Seventh Street Books ($15.95)
“The Hemingway Thief” by Shaun Harris; Seventh Street Books ($15.95)

It is fitting that “The Hemingway Thief” begins with a fight because Ernest Hemingway was known for his pugilistic prowess.

It is also fitting that the main character Henry “Coop” Cooper is a writer, albeit one who earns his keep penning romance novels under the pseudonym Toulouse Velour. In addition, Coop befriends hotel owner and former DEA agent Grady Doyle, something Papa Hemingway fashioned in his novels. For example, Jake Barnes and Montoya, owner of Hotel Montoya in Pamplona, have a close relationship in “The Sun Also Rises.”

The fulcrum of the novel is a never-seen-before first draft of “A Moveable Feast” — Hemingway’s posthumous memoir about his time in Paris in the 1920s — which Ebbie Milch is trying to sell to pay off some of his $30,000 gambling debt. At Doyle’s hotel in Mexico, the setting of the novel, Milch is drubbed by a handful of heavies hired by Newton Thandy, a “white rich southerner” and rare book dealer who accuses Milch of stealing the manuscript from him. The draft goes missing, but Doyle locates it in Milch’s room and shares it with Coop.

These events begin a series of gun fights, RV chases and bodies thrown off cliffs — resulting in death in the Mexican mountains. The narrative continues, mellifluously, with a journey into the Mexican back country where, awaiting Doyle and Coop, might be an even larger Hemingway prize: a suitcase filled with a series of never-seen-before Hemingway short stories that was purloined from Hadley Richardson Hemingway at a Paris train station in 1922.

The dangerous Mexican back country, which is run by drug peddlers, is not for neophytes: “Your passport was whom you knew, the names and acquaintances you could rattle off when questioned by a stranger,” but it was a necessary trip because, “This is where Ebenezer Milch, the Hemingway thief, made his final home.”

However, Thandy hires a female “hitter,” La Donde, who tracks Coop and Grady, helping Thandy recover the draft of “A Moveable Feast” and the suitcase. It is dangerous terrain: “On the other side of the river was a green, leafy crop of marijuana the size of a Nebraska cornfield” — and where there are drugs there is violence.

Additional characters like Digby, “who had literally come down out of the mountains a few years ago,” and Dutch, the son of obscure beat poet Denim, who disappeared “during the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont,” highlight the author’s creativity. When the novel culminates, the reader discovers who ultimately recovers the Hemingway stories in this amalgamation of metafiction, historical fiction, literary thriller and comedic mystery caper.

Wayne Catan has written book reviews for The New York Times, The Hemingway Review, Idaho Mountain Express and the Idaho Statesman. He teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.