IN STEAL MY HEART, Mark Brazaitis draws on his knowledge of Guatemala to develop an intriguing set of characters from all levels of the country’s troubled society, including the expatriate community. He winningly begins his novel with Ramiro Caal, an introspective young man who proceeds to do exactly what the title pleads. An indigenous Guatemalan, Ramiro is an Indian with a university education, not easily achieved in a society dominated by the descendants of the conquistadors, but he has returned to farming for a living, to lonely nights and memories of a lost love.
During an English lesson at the house of his Peace Corps friend, Ed Shell, Ramiro reveals that five years ago he was a detective, but when he solved a crime the authorities preferred kept under wraps, he lost his job. Now, without explanation, the police want him back. He is to go to the lakeside town of Panajachel and catch the thief who is stealing the wallets and purses of tourists and giving Guatemala a bad name. That Ed is headed for the same town for a rendezvous with his girlfriend Rachel (another PCV) happily assures us there will be a crossing of paths.
In Panajachel, well ahead of Ramiro and his soon-to-become-sidekick Ed, we meet the thief, a balding pick-pocket from Manhattan. Now plying his trade in the shadow of volcanoes and coconut palms, Carlton James lives expat-style in a fancy house to which he returns at dawn one morning, dressed in black from head to toe, a knapsack of booty on his back. When Rosario, his Indian maid, observes him thus garbed, and is obviously curious about the contents of his pack, Carlton has a moment of alarm, but it evaporates as he sees the sunlight reflecting off the young woman’s long black hair. An oddly proper and somewhat quirky romance begins.
The novel is part mystery, with picaresque overtones, a love story (stories), that poignantly illuminates the past and present lives of characters who follow no mold, and whose futures are held tremulously in the grip of cultural circumstance. A zigzagging course of surprises and shifting moods accompany Ramiro as he and others travel across rural and urban Guatemala. The detective still dreams of the sweetheart that is his no more, but he is diligent in his pursuit of clues that will identify the thief he has been charged to find. When Ed and his girlfriend Rachel are robbed, there is a coalescing of interest and soon they have a bead on Carlton. Getting the evidence is another matter.
They get a fortuitous boost when Ed and Rachel are invited to be houseguests of a lonely, stylish American widow, a neighbor of Carlton’s. From her windows they watch Carlton’s house, and spy Carlton’s maid Rosario, bags in hand, leaving on a trip. The opportunity of a property-search leads Ramiro and Ed to incriminating evidence, but they are caught in the act by the darkest character in the book, a cunning and corrupt policeman, who takes the evidence and delivers a sinister threat, with potentially grave consequences.
Meanwhile, in a distant town, unaware that he is under heightened scrutiny, Carlton sells his cache of stolen goods to his fence, a dentist interrupted in performing a root canal. It is a hilarious, but final laugh. With the police in-the-know, it is serious business from now on, well beyond the world of pick-pocket tricks. On the run, Carlton and Rosario are separated. Carlton flees to the countryside where he is captured by guerrillas. Their guns are not small, and the blood Carlton sees is real, but despite his own danger, his thoughts are of Rosario. What will happen if she is captured by the police and put in jail? Carlton sets his mind to thinking how he might save her.
Ramiro also has begun to think about Rosario and agonizes over where fate has taken this indígena woman and what will befall her if she is put into prison. Though tormented by what the search for a petty thief has set in motion, he continues in pursuit of his quarry, but Rosario is now in his thoughts.
Brazaitis gathers up the loose ends of his story with an inventiveness for which the groundwork has been well laid. Even so, there are some surprising jolts. To give them and some of the earlier twists away, would diminish the pleasure of discovery this book deserves. In the final pages there is the satisfaction of listening to Ramiro and Ed review their adventures, but that Ramiro, alone, in the quiet dark of his small house, has the last word, is just right. “Perhaps if he whispered her name enough times, she would come. God might lift her with a wind that would carry her over mountains . . . . It was everyone’s right to ask for a miracle once in a lifetime, and now Ramiro was asking.”
Joan Richter is an editor and writer in Washington DC.