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Book Author: Grace D. Li

PORTRAIT OF A THIEF by Grace D. Li: Book Review

Five gifted twenty-somethings and a plan for a series of international heists of priceless Chinese art.  It’s a winning concept for Grace D. Li’s debut mystery, Portrait of a Thief.

Four of the protagonists are undergraduates at top-rated universities; the fifth was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but left when she was offered a job opportunity in Silicon Valley that she felt she couldn’t refuse.  Three are women, two are men, four are ABCs (American Born Chinese), the fifth was born in Beijing and came to the United States as a child with his father.

Their ethnicity and various backgrounds are important to understand how these young people became involved in a scheme to rob five museums of ancient sculptures, although perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that several of the five saw it as an opportunity to “repatriate” stolen art works taken from China over the centuries by various Western powers.

It began with a robbery at the Sackler, one of Harvard University’s museums.  Will Chen, a senior at the college, is an art history major and works part-time at the Sackler.

Alex Huang was a student at MIT when she received a job offer from Google that offered her a higher annual salary than her parents, owners of a New York City restaurant, made in a year.

Lily Wu is a junior at Duke, living away from her Galveston home for the first time.  She’s majoring in engineering, but her true passion is racing cars.

Lily’s roommate is Irene Chen, Will’s sister.  Irene seems to be living a charmed life with her future mapped out–graduating from Duke summa cum laude, working for a year or two in politics, then going to law school.

Daniel is the only non-native American in the group.  After his mother died, he and his father left China and moved to the Santa Clara Valley in California.  Now he’s a senior at UCLA and getting ready for medical school interviews.  Most interesting, his father is a specialist in Chinese art for the FBI.

It would seem that Will, Alex, Lily, Daniel, and Irene have lives most college students could only dream about.  But then an invitation to go to Beijing upends everything they had thought about themselves.

Will was in the Sackler when the robbery took place.  As he stood against a museum wall, trying to become invisible, he felt a business card being pressed into his pocket.  There’s a phone number on it and the name China Poly.

Wang Yuling, China’s youngest billionaire, is the head of China Poly, one of the country’s most secretive organizations.  She has invited William, Alex, Lily, Daniel and Irene to Beijing to discuss several priceless pieces of art that were stolen from the Old Summer Palace when British and French forces burned it to the ground in 1860.

There were twelve zodiac heads surrounding the fountain in the Palace’s gardens then, but only seven remain in China.  Wang tells the five young people she’s invited to China’s capital city, “I want you to take back what the West stole.”

Portrait of a Thief is a masterful first novel.  Ms. Li characters are compelling, and the plot is suspenseful and riveting.  You can read more about Grace D. Li at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.