The Hidden Keys by André Alexis
Toronto. Coach House Books. 2016. 232 pages.
In his latest novel, Scotiabank Giller Prize winner André Alexis crafts a complex tale of family, addiction, and mystery that reflects a diverse vision of Toronto. By turns fun and moving, The Hidden Keys is a work of remarkable weight that lands lightly, enjoyable and affecting at the same time, with numerous surprise turns that keep the reader on edge until the very end.
Tancred Palmieri is a professional thief with a straightforward personal code that keeps him just above abject criminality. When he meets Willow Azarian in a bar in the dodgy neighborhood of Parkdale, where he grew up and currently lives among drug dealers and prostitutes, he doesn’t immediately believe that she’s immensely wealthy. But over the course of a series of visits, he learns that the heroin-addicted Willow is the daughter of Robert Azarian, a late billionaire who left each of his five children a fortune. But he also left each a unique art object that, Willow suspects, contains clues to a further inheritance, to be found after the father’s death. Enlisting Tancred in her plan to steal each object and solve the mystery, Willow draws him into a messy world of suspicion, greed, and family dynamics that almost costs Tancred his friendships, career, and life.
Toronto itself lies at the heart of this story, playing the role of a map for Tancred’s search and serving as a unique melting pot where class and race boundaries fall. The wildly wealthy Azarians, the charming gentleman thief Tancred, and a cast of surly and violent lesser characters mingle, argue, and bond as they circle one another. All hail from different backgrounds and places, immigrants who came or whose families came to Canada and carved out lives of varying quality in the same city. In a time when inequality seems to have created insurmountable barriers, the Toronto Alexis has captured is touching and inspiring.
But the novel is far from a simplistic romp. It is gritty, dangerous, and tense throughout, built in large part on Tancred’s own ability to read people and circumstances. The objects he must track down and steal are varied: re-creations of a painting, a framed poem, an alcohol bottle, and a model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, in addition to a screen given to him by Willow. But each item holds a clue that sends him across the city and into alliances with a British artist-turned-taxidermist and with a drug dealer and his vicious muscle, and threatens his long friendships with a nihilist baker and a detective assigned to investigate the very thefts Tancred is carrying out.
Riveting from cover to cover, The Hidden Keys is an old-fashioned mystery blended with a sharp portrait of modern Canadian identity.