April 14, 1980 12:00 PM

by Arthur A. Cohen

If a spectacular increase in art theft comes (as it has), can books be far behind? This intriguing novel is part of the answer. It centers on a young Austrian count with a strange childhood—he was shot by his crazed father—who renounces his title, becomes an artist and settles in Mexico. His true vocation is art theft; his specialty, ancient Indian sculpture. This book traces one caper from theft (by bribing the local militia) to final confrontation with a police inspector who is an art lover and collector with morals to match the culprit’s. The encounter is a surprising twist to the ancient observation that in crime the hunter and the hunted are often cut from the same tattered cloth. Acts of Theft is filled with exotic characters and scenes—an effort by a militia officer to extort more money by displaying his mutilated son is stunning. Author Cohen obviously shares his character’s passion (and prejudices) about art, and his ruminations on the subject are provocative, though they sometimes slow the story. Despite its arcane locale and cast, this novel is as contemporary as the next headlined theft of precious art. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $10)

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