Thieftaker, a novel by D.B. Jackson, focuses on one of the less glamorous aspects of the history of law enforcement. A thieftaker was a kind of bounty hunter, hired to find and retrieve or negotiate for stolen property. They didn’t exist for very long, as it seems to have been a rather corrupt line of work, and they were eventually replaced by something much closer to modern policing with the appearance of the Bow Street Runners.
However, like most other kinds of bounty hunters there’s something that perks human interest in the idea of seeing wrongs set right, and the idea of someone who will step in and help do that is doubly appealing. Throw in the many reasons a bounty hunter might have to be jaded and searching for his humanity and you have a great recipe for conflict, internal and external.
Of course, we’ve seen all that before. So Jackson goes for broke by adding not one but two twists. The first is fairly unsurprising. Thieftaker is a historical fantasy, meaning that protagonist Ethan Kaille is not only a bounty hunter, he’s a speller, using a dash of magic to augment his street smarts and help him catch his man. Ethan keeps his secret using the usual blend of caution and intimidation that readers of most urban fantasy will be familiar with –
Wait, scratch that, no he doesn’t. While Ethan is cautious with his magic, he has to contend with the novel’s other major conceit: It’s set in Boston, Massachusetts, in the year A.D. 1765. People still heartily believe in magic, and, while conjurors like Ethan are still talked about in hushed tones, that doesn’t mean a good lynching is outside the realm of possibility. Fortunately, there’s new taxes from Britain and riots in the streets to keep people from paying too much attention to one little ol’ theiftaker.
That is, until a young woman is murdered by magic, and her jewelery is stolen. Her father hires Ethan to find the stolen jewelery and the murderer in the process. Unfortunately, Ethan is hired in part because of his magical savvy, proving his secret is not quite as secret as he might like. Before the day is done, he’ll cross paths with another theiftaker who isn’t glad for his competition, a number of conjurors much more powerful than he is, and luminaries no less bright than Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty.
Not that Ethan has much use for people who incite riot and ruin…
Thieftaker is an interesting book that gives a rather revealing look at what getting a crime solved might have been like before police forces came into being. It was a much more personal kind of a thing, but also much more difficult to see done, for reasons of expense if nothing else. Ethan Kaille is an interesting character who stands out from the crowd in some noticeable ways, not the least being nearly forty as opposed to his mid twenties like most other characters at the beginning of an detective/adventure series. But probably the best part about the book is it’s sense of place and time.
The many details of Eighteenth century Boston have been lovingly recorded, and Sam Adams is by no means the only historical figure to get screen time. The details of the people and places have been recreated with a historian’s love for detail and a fantasy author’s love for the fantastic.
If you love historical fiction of just about any type, I recommend Thieftaker to you wholeheartedly.