Book Review: “The Last Roadshow” by John Czarnota (@JohnCzarnota)



For several months now (which feels like years), our national broadcaster has been showing the BBC TV show Antiques Roadshow right before the evening news. Usually filmed in regional towns and villages across the United Kingdom, the show has the local people bringing along their collected items to be evaluated for authenticity. As the professional evaluators give an in-depth historical, craft or artistic context to an antique, they often provide an estimation of its monetary value as well.

A sense of expectation usually builds up as the owner of an antique and the surrounding crowds eagerly wait for the evaluators to announce a price. Their oohs and aahs and surprised gasps often make me wonder how many people there are actually interested in the study of the past. Many of the items are estimated to be worth thousands, if not tens of thousands, of British pounds. I can almost see the dollar signs ($) popping up in people’s eyes with the loud “Ding!” of a cash register sounding in the background.

What a perfect idea for a crime novel, a thriller or mystery, even a horror story. Which is why it is a delight to read John Czarnota’s The Last Roadshow, whose protagonist is “a rogue art thief who trailed the Antiques Roadshow for over a decade”. Joe Knocker would usually stand in the queue, making small talk with the crowd waiting to enter the show in order to find out the nature and significance of their “show and tell” items.

Once inside, Knocker would casually walks around, checking out the items being evaluated while keeping an eye on the show’s filming crew and security staff. Having previously familiarised himself with the venue’s layout and various exits, he could easily escape whenever trouble occurred. Interestingly, once an antique was found to be valuable, “as dumb as it may seem, 95% of the time the marks (i.e. owners) brought it home and still kept it there”. Knowing this, Knocker would leave everything the way it was and return six months later to rob the owner’s house.

Reading The Last Roadshow, one gets the feeling that Czarnota really knows his stuff. He truly understands the psychological clockworks of both owners (the “marks”) and dealers (the “fences”) of antiques – especially paintings – and he has a way to make professional art evaluators look like pompous purring cats. But the most brilliant character is certainly Knocker, who reminds me of Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) or even Robert Redford in Sneakers (1992). Reading his art and craft of burglary gives a tingle down the spine.

However, a bizarre twist forces Knocker to confront his past, and we get to experience the tough life he has lived – and the fascinating historical and cultural lessons he has learned – across America. Now he has to right a wrong by getting back a national treasure he once stole and sold, and the story takes on a sense of excitement that we used to feel in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol (2009).

What makes Knocker and other characters attractive is that they have a conscience and are willing (not just able) to care. But Czarnota does not linger on emotions. This enhances his pacing and enables readers to participate in the adventure. With that said, it is a pity that typos exist. Occasionally the book also has more telling than showing. This is despite the fact that Czarnota is perfectly capable of writing precise and thought-provoking dialogues.

In short, The Last Roadshow is an interesting exploration of the world of antiques, if only from a professional thief’s point of view. What is once collected can never be released, including scars and regrets. Luckily, memories are the only collectible that can be and is worth sharing.

Transparency: This review is part of a blog tour organised by BookBear Author Services.


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