Portrait of a Thief

A Novel

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An Edgar Award Nominee for Best First Novel
Longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize
Named a New York Times Best Crime Novel of 2022
Named A Most Anticipated Book of 2022 by *Marie Claire* *Washington Post* *Vulture* *NBC News*  *Buzzfeed* *Veranda* *PopSugar* *Paste* *The Millions* *Bustle* *Crimereads* Goodreads* *Bookbub* *
Boston.com* and more!

“The thefts are engaging and surprising, and the narrative brims with international intrigue. Li, however, has delivered more than a straight thriller here, especially in the parts that depict the despair Will and his pals feel at being displaced, overlooked, underestimated, and discriminated against. This is as much a novel as a reckoning.”
–New York Times Book Review

Ocean’s Eleven
meets The Farewell in Portrait of a Thief, a lush, lyrical heist novel inspired by the true story of Chinese art vanishing from Western museums; about diaspora, the colonization of art, and the complexity of the Chinese American identity

History is told by the conquerors. Across the Western world, museums display the spoils of war, of conquest, of colonialism: priceless pieces of art looted from other countries, kept even now. 

Will Chen plans to steal them back.

A senior at Harvard, Will fits comfortably in his carefully curated roles: a perfect student, an art history major and sometimes artist, the eldest son who has always been his parents’ American Dream. But when a mysterious Chinese benefactor reaches out with an impossible–and illegal–job offer, Will finds himself something else as well: the leader of a heist to steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures, looted from Beijing centuries ago. 

His crew is every heist archetype one can imag­ine–or at least, the closest he can get. A con artist: Irene Chen, a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything. A thief: Daniel Liang, a premed student with steady hands just as capable of lockpicking as suturing. A getaway driver: Lily Wu, an engineering major who races cars in her free time. A hacker: Alex Huang, an MIT dropout turned Silicon Valley software engineer. Each member of his crew has their own complicated relationship with China and the identity they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but when Will asks, none of them can turn him down. 

Because if they succeed? They earn fifty million dollars–and a chance to make history. But if they fail, it will mean not just the loss of everything they’ve dreamed for themselves but yet another thwarted at­tempt to take back what colonialism has stolen.

Equal parts beautiful, thoughtful, and thrilling, Portrait of a Thief is a cultural heist and an examination of Chinese American identity, as well as a necessary cri­tique of the lingering effects of colonialism.


Act One

Every work of art is an uncommitted crime.




State your name for the record, please."

This was how things began: Boston on the cusp of fall, the Sackler Museum robbed of twenty-three pieces of priceless Chinese art. Even in the museum's back room, dust catching the slant of golden, late-afternoon light, Will could hear the sirens. They sounded like a promise.

"Will Chen."

"And what were you doing at the Sackler Museum, Mr. Chen?"

"I work here part-time. I'm an art history student at Harvard."

"Did you see anything unusual before the theft?"


"Describe what you saw during the incident. Any distinguishing features of the thieves, anything the security cameras might not have caught."

"It all happened very fast. I looked up from my essay and the alarms were going off. When I ran into the gallery, they were already leaving. They had on ski masks, black clothes." He hesitated, just for a moment. "I think they were speaking Chinese."

For a moment, the only sound was the scratch of the detective's pen against his notepad. "I see. Do you speak Chinese, Mr. Chen?"

"Yes, I—does it matter? I couldn't really make out what they were saying. The alarms were going off at this point."

"Of course. And do you know what they stole?"

Will thought back to the empty room. If he closed his eyes, he could fit the pieces back where they were supposed to go—a pair of jade tigers, a dragon vase. A jade cup with three crested bronze birds, midflight. "Not really. I've been gone all summer."

The detective slid a sheet of paper across the table. "Can you read the title of this for me?"

It was a printout from the Harvard Crimson, from late August. Will swallowed hard. " 'What Is Ours Is Not Ours: Chinese Art and Western Imperialism.' "

"Did you write this?"


The detective leaned forward, his fingertips touching. "Tell me if this sounds suspicious to you: A Chinese student writes an article about looted art, and a few weeks later, Harvard's largest collection of Asian art is robbed. All the priceless pieces mentioned in the article—gone."

Will leaned back in his chair. The golden light made everything feel like a painting, and he let his mind drift for a moment, thinking of the paper on Renaissance art that was due next week, the sculpture he still had to finish for his portfolio. "Not particularly."

"And why is that?"

"I was born in the US, Detective . . ." Will looked for a badge, a name.


"Detective Meyers."

"What is your—"

"I'm Chinese American," Will said, lingering on the American. He adjusted the rolled-up cuff of his button-down, imagining how his sister would handle this situation. "You said I was Chinese. But I was born and raised in the US, just like you, and I work part-time at the Sackler, and three weeks ago the Crimson published a paper I wrote for an art history class at Harvard. Last time I checked, none of those are crimes. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have homework to do."

"This is procedure, Mr. Chen. I just have a few more questions, if you will—"

Will rose. It might have been a small thing, to be called Chinese instead of Chinese American, to have this detective who spoke in a Boston accent look at him as if this place, this museum, this art didn't belong to him, but—it didn't feel like a small thing. Not when he was at Harvard, this place of dreams, and he was so close to everything he had ever wanted.

It was his senior year, and the whole world felt on the verge of cracking open.

"I've told you everything I know," he said, "and I know my rights. Next time you want to accuse me of something, go through my lawyer."

In Eliot House, with his window open to the warm evening air and the distant sound of chatter in the courtyard, Will took a single jade tiger out of his pocket. The stone was cool, almost cold against his skin. It shone in the halfway light, the jade a pale, almost translucent green, with veins of reddish-brown at the tiger's head and tail. Despite the centuries, the edges of the carving were sharp enough to cut.

Jade Tiger (one of a pair), the placard had read. Date: 3rd century BCE. Culture: Chinese.

He had one tiger; the thieves had the other. It had been almost too easy to palm it, the glass between him and the art shattered in the theft. He traced a finger along the tiger's curved back, still a little in disbelief. He was sure it was worth hundreds of thousands, but that wasn't the important thing. The important thing was that it had been China's, and then it had been Harvard's, and now it was his.

He thought back to the paper he had written for class. What is ours is not ours. Who could determine what counted as theft when museums and countries and civilizations saw the spoils of conquest as rightfully earned?

From his coat pocket, a card fluttered to the floor.

Will reached for it, his breath catching in the stillness. For a moment, he was back at the Sackler, listening to the rapid, staccato Chinese of the thieves, their voices a counterpoint to the wail of the alarms. He had pressed himself against the wall, his heart pounding in his ears, and yet one of them had still brushed past him on the way out, so close it could almost be called deliberate.

The business card was a matte black, with the words CHINA POLY and an international phone number printed on the front in neat block letters. And below that, in a messy hand:


Nice lift.



When Alex Huang closed her eyes, she dreamed of Chinatown: the red lanterns strung along every storefront, the smell of fish markets, the rise and fall of Cantonese as buyers and sellers haggled. It had been three years since she had stood before the whole glazed ducks rotating in the restaurant's windows, flipped the sign from CLOSED to OPEN each morning at seven a.m. while her parents prepped the kitchen of Yi Hua Lou.

This was how things changed: slowly, and then all at once. An acceptance letter from MIT, a FAFSA form, a bus ride to Boston. Her younger siblings waving to her until she couldn't see them anymore. Holidays spent at school, in libraries or on friends' couches, summer internships on a different coast. A full-time offer from Google her junior fall. Whenever you're ready, the recruiter had said, but the sign-on bonus was more than her parents made in a year.

Within a month, Alex had moved to Silicon Valley.

The sun was setting in Mountain View, evening light pooling on her living room floor. Had it really been less than a year? She could still remember stepping off the plane that first day, how the sky had been wide in a way she wasn't used to after years of living in New York City and then in Boston. She had thought, This is the beginning of the rest of my life. It had been just a little terrifying. Everything she knew, everyone she loved, left behind on another coast.

And so there was just this: a Friday evening and an empty apartment, to-go containers scattered across the dining table. Her laptop was open, her work for the night still not done—never done, really—but despite its hum, her chewing felt too loud in the stillness. Alex reached for her phone, just for something to do, scrolled through all the tasks still left for tonight, the unread messages in her family WeChat group, and—a missed call from Will Chen.

That last one was the most interesting. You called? she texted him.

A moment later, her phone began to ring.

"You are the only person who would rather call than text," she said as a greeting.

"Hey, Alex. Good to hear from you too." Will's voice was low, liquid like honey, and she remembered briefly why she had thought, early on, that there was the possibility of something. "How long does it take to hack into a museum's security system?"

Alex cast a glance at her program; it was still running. "You know that being a software engineer isn't the same thing as being a hacker, right?"

"Alex Huang, I didn't think there was anything you couldn't do."

She couldn't help but laugh. Will was playing on her vanity, but—well, he wasn't wrong. Alex opened her personal laptop, sliding her work laptop to the side. There were so many questions she could have asked, but already this was the most interesting thing to happen to her in a long time. She would let it play out. "I suppose it depends on the museum."

"The Sackler? Let me send you the log-in info."

In a few quick keystrokes, she had pulled up the museum intranet. "Sounds familiar."

"Our first date," Will supplied.

Alex laughed. "I should've known we wouldn't work out the instant you suggested we go to an art museum." They had met on Tinder, during the brief period when they were both new to college and the dating scene, had gone to the Sackler and then for coffee on an overcast New England afternoon. There had been a couple of dates after that, but nothing else, and after seeing the heartbreak Will tended to leave in his wake, she was relieved neither one of them had wanted more. Still, they had kept in touch after she had moved to California, video chatting on late nights when Will's insomnia kept him up and Alex was afraid the loneliness would eat her alive, comparing younger siblings and the heavy weight of their parents' expectations, the specific traumas of their pasts laid bare as the hours passed. She knew him well enough to know that they would never date again.

The Sackler's video footage loaded on her screen. The museum was aglow, even though it was late on the East Coast, and on the cameras outside the museum, police lights spun red and blue over cobbled streets. She switched to another incognito tab and searched up harvard sackler museum + news.

All the headlines told the same story: smashed glass and black ski masks, twenty-three stolen pieces of Chinese art. There had been three eyewitnesses but no leads. She narrowed her eyes at her phone. "Why didn't you tell me there was a robbery?"

"Alex," Will began. There was a catch in his voice.

"Were you there?"

He was silent for a long moment. "That's why I'm calling."

Alex closed her eyes, thinking of the day she had withdrawn from MIT. It had been fall, the leaves just beginning to change color, and the Charles River twisted like silver wire through downtown Boston. It had felt like the beginning of something, like her whole life was unspooling. She had never described the feeling to Will, but she thought maybe he would recognize it. This evening, the Sackler's stolen art—what was this if not change?

A moment later, Alex had pulled up the footage from the night before. She shared her screen with him as she did, and together they watched the theft. Alex knew Will was watching the thieves, the elegance of their movements, the art that disappeared beneath their gloved hands, but she was watching Will. Will as he got up from his desk at the Sackler, as he ran into the other room. Will standing against the wall, his eyes wide behind his glasses and his dark hair tousled, looking for all the world like any other overwhelmed college kid save for the slight movement of his hand, the momentary glint of jade in his palm.

"Will Chen," Alex said, very quietly, "what have you done?"

His voice, too, was soft. "I know, I know. There's more."

So maybe she had been wrong. Maybe Will had been watching her, after all.

The theft was almost over. As they left, one masked figure brushed very close to Will. She zoomed in on the still, but she couldn't tell what the thief was doing, if anything. "A business card," Will said, and her phone lit up with an image. The words were in simplified Chinese, not traditional, but she could read it well enough. "And an invitation."

"Are you going to take it?" Alex rewound to the moment Will stole the artifact, that telltale shine. Her fingers hovered over the keys. It would take very little to erase this footage. A half-second jump between one frame and the next, chalked up to a minor glitch in the system, the fallibility of tech. It was also definitely illegal.

"If I did, would you join me?"

Her work computer chimed. Her program was done running, and there was more to do. There always was. Alex knew she should say no, return to a Friday night programming in her Mountain View apartment, the rest of her days, the rest of her life blurring together in the California sunshine. She had chosen this, after all. A steady paycheck and the slow upward climb to manager, lines of code in Java and Python and all the languages yet to come. It was the safe choice, the responsible one, the kind that she had spent her whole life making.

And yet—

In the cool, indifferent light of her apartment, Alex leaned back, thought of change. Three years ago, stepping onto MIT's campus for the first time. Leaving it behind before she was ready. And now—a museum of stolen art, security footage blinking on her computer.

Will's breathing was soft over the phone, and she remembered, too, that terrible first date, walking through the Sackler and then, afterward, the two of them drinking overpriced coffee and talking of dreams. They'd been freshmen then, still figuring out what it meant to go to the best universities in the country, to have so much possibility at their fingertips, but—it had all seemed within reach. His dreams. Hers. It had been so long since Alex had let herself think about what she wanted, separate from her family and her responsibilities, all that she owed the people in her life.

"Alex?" Will said, and it was a question, an offering, an open door.

In one swift, decisive motion, Alex pressed delete. "I'm in."



This late, Harvard was quiet, still, something out of a painting. Will would have done it in slow, sweeping brushstrokes, the sky curving around lamps that shone torch-bright. It was the kind of evening where the impossible felt close enough to touch, to taste. He took a deep, steadying breath.

What was real: the jade tiger in his palm, stolen from the Sackler just hours ago.

What was real: the future carved open.

He had made three calls tonight. The first, to the number on the back of the card, had taken him to an empty dial tone. Moments later, he had received a text message with a link to an Air China reservation under his name for five first-class tickets to Beijing.

The flight was a week from today.

The second call was to his sister. Irene had done all the things that he—skin humming, full of excitement and adrenaline and certainty that he would follow this adventure to its end—had not bothered to do. Over FaceTime, she had looked up the CEO of China Poly, its mission, all the ways it had its fingers in foreign trade. He was not used to uncertainty from her, and yet when she was done, her voice was low, hesitant as she asked, Are you sure you know what you're getting yourself into?

The third call had been to Alex. Irene would have warned him to wait, to think this through, but Will had always recognized in Alex all the parts of him he was afraid to look too closely at. She knew as well as he did—maybe better—what it was like to want more from the world than you were meant to have, to know that wanting wasn't always enough. They were both twenty-one by now, would turn twenty-two this year, and the future was so far from what either of them had once thought it would be. Still, with all that had happened today, he could almost believe they were eighteen again, young and ambitious and certain they could remake the world. He had never doubted that she would say yes.

Will cast a glance outside. The sun would rise in a few hours, turning the world harsh and brilliant and new. If it had been any other weekend, he would've been at a finals club party, searching for something, someone, to make him feel, but instead there was a rental car and the long drive ahead of him, Will packing his things as the rest of Harvard slept. He thought back to his sister, asking him for certainty.

I'm sure, he had said. It might have been a lie. Ahead of him loomed job applications, the threat of graduation on the horizon, all that he'd thought he would become by now. And yet—when the Sackler had been robbed today, when the museum's alarms had kept pace with the pounding of his heart, Will hadn't felt fear. Instead there had been a heavy sort of inevitability to it, as if his whole life had brought him here, to a museum of Chinese art and the thieves who took it back.

What was real, if not this?

The fall air felt like a beginning, and Will slung his backpack over his shoulder, slipped his phone in his pocket. His mind went once more to his sister, the sharp, pleased edge to her smile. Then there's a driver at Duke I think you should meet.



The night was dark as an oil spill. Lily Wu drummed her fingers along the curve of her steering wheel, waiting for the darkness to change, for her world to change. The air tasted of cigarette smoke and cheap beer, and even with her windows up she could hear the steady thrum of the bass from the speakers that jutted into the Durham night. College students lined both sides of Main Street. Their gazes raked over her red Mustang, the Audi R8 next to her that gleamed a sleek, hungry silver.

Five seconds.

The boy in the Audi rolled down his window. Lily kept her gaze on the light, red and fluorescent in the summer dark. Returning to Duke always felt like stepping into an unfamiliar world, bright and glittering and false. This—the harsh glow of the stoplight, the steady hum of her car beneath her palms—was the only thing that felt real.

Four seconds.

"Winner take all?" he called.

Three seconds.

Lily's foot never left the gas. The window was open, just a crack, and the night air was warm and expectant against her skin.

One second.

"Winner take all," Lily agreed, and then the light changed.

It did not feel like it had been three years. Two, Lily supposed, since her junior year had barely begun, Durham cast in that late-summer haze of September. She still remembered the first time she had made the seventeen-hour drive from Galveston, Texas, to Durham, North Carolina. She had been in the driver's seat, as always, and her parents had taken rare time off work to make the trip with her. When they crossed the state line, out of Texas, out of this place she had spent her whole life, Lily had felt something in her open up. College, the future—for once, it did not feel so impossibly far away.

When they reached Durham at last, the sun was setting. The sky was a blur of red and orange and the deep, dark greens of those great Carolina trees. After she and her parents unloaded her suitcases in her new dorm room, they took the bus to West Campus to see the chapel for the first time. Her parents had lingered back, taking pictures of the chapel, the bus stop, their only daughter standing there with her head tilted up, but all Lily could see was the cotton candy sky and the sun against the stone, the way it cut into the sky like possibility.

No more, she had promised herself. No more street racing, no more near-death experiences. No more risk. Not when her parents were paying all they could and more for her education, when she would graduate over 100K in debt regardless. She'd be a good student, and an even better engineer.

It had seemed like an easy promise to make.

And then—a few days later, as she was walking out of Data Structures and Algorithms, she had overheard two white boys talking about the Durham races. It's worth watching, one told the other. When she grabbed her car keys, her blood singing, she told herself she was just going to watch.

Even then, it had tasted like a lie.

Behind her, the Audi was a distant memory. Lily eased up on the gas, just for a moment, letting the other car draw a little closer. Up ahead, the finish line was marked with clean white chalk. She gave him one foot, then two—she wanted this victory to feel earned—and then she flew across the finish line, the Audi just a breath behind her.

Two years, and still some things stayed the same. The crowd spilled from the sidewalk to the street, streetlights shining fluorescent against bare skin. This was summer at its best, engine exhaust and the lingering traces of smoke, and Lily tipped her head back and breathed it in, smiling. The other driver was slow to leave his car, slower still to drop his keys in Lily's palm. But he did, and her fingers curled around it, the jagged edges cool and unfamiliar against her thumb.

That night, when the races were over and Durham was quiet once more, Lily went to claim her Audi R8. It shone silver in the darkness, and she thought of midnights in Galveston and the reflection of the moon against the waves, the shimmer of Texas roads under a high sun. She would sell it back to its owner later, do the same thing she always did, but for now she left her Mustang in the parking lot, let herself enjoy the warm evening air, the easy calm of the empty streets.

A stranger was leaning against Lily's new car, his hands tucked into the pockets of his coat, just a little too heavy for early fall in the Carolinas. "Congratulations," he said. There was something familiar about the high arch of his cheekbones, the smile that flitted across his face like a promise. He was the kind of beautiful that made you want to look and keep looking. "I don't think we've met."

Lily tilted her head up to look at him, smiling despite herself. "Actually," she said, "I think we have."

It had been the easiest thing in the world to let Will Chen slide into the passenger seat of her new Audi, to press her foot on the gas until they were flying down an empty street, the trees casting long, hungry shadows against her sweeping headlights. Lily ran her fingers along the radio dials, the rearview mirror, getting acquainted with this car. Every year there were freshmen who'd learned of the races the same way she had, who'd heard her name and taken it as a challenge. The trick to it, then, was finding the one with the car she wanted most.

And then to wait.

Her own first year, it had been a surprise. Victory had been strange and sweet on her tongue. Two years later, it felt different. Home was that house in Galveston, the ocean air rough against her skin, but sometimes, when she closed her eyes, she dreamed not of the sea but of the lights in Brightleaf Square, strung up like unknown constellations, Durham at night shimmering with possibility.

She glanced at Irene's brother at the stoplight. His dark hair was tousled in a way that had to be deliberate, and the red, fluorescent light glanced off the angles of his face, the clean line of his jaw. He turned his glasses over in his hand, and she imagined the world as he saw it right now, a blur of green and black and flashing, silver lights.

They had met just once before, at orientation her freshman year at Duke. He had been starting his sophomore year at Harvard, had come down to help Irene move in, and Lily vaguely remembered not wanting her parents to meet him. Will, with his Harvard education and perfect, lilting Chinese, was every Asian parent's dream.

On Sale
Apr 5, 2022
Page Count
384 pages