Monday, December 28, 2015

A Queen and King of the Art Mystery Genre (no. 9)

 by Larry Witham

Both Charlotte and Aaron Elkins created art-world protagonists

ENTER ALIX LONDON. She’s young and beautiful. She’s a Harvard-trained art expert who can drive a race car, when necessary, and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the FBI. And, not only that.
            Her famous father held top posts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (before spending ten years in prison as a celebrated art forger). When the chips are down, Alix handily escapes death, and with intuition alone, she can spot a fake painting a mile away.
            It took three “Alix London Mysteries” to flesh out this indomitable heroine of the contemporary art scene. And then she was gone, retired (after 2014) to the crowded pantheon of mystery-novel protagonists whose series must always end. Yet Alix covered a universe of art while she was here.
            She is the creation of the mystery-novel husband-and-wife team Aaron and Charlotte Elkins, who’s popular, light-fare novels are almost beyond number. Six of them, however, are devoted to two protagonists—one male and one female—who are art experts solving crimes in the art world.
            With the arrival of Alix, Charlotte takes the lead on the book cover. Naturally so. With a degree in art history, Charlotte Elkins was an art librarian for many years before joining her husband’s writing regime. (Anthropologist husband Aaron, who probably invented the forensic mystery, had earlier introduced his own art-expert protagonist, Chris Norgren, in 1987, in the first of three Norgren art-crime capers).
            The arrival of Alix London in 2012 has some geographical rhyme and reason behind it: the Elkins couple lives in Washington State, home to the Empire.
            In 2011, Amazon launched a mystery and thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer books. The “Alix London Mysteries” appeared the very next year under Amazon’s auspices. A certain degree of local pride influences most authors, and some publishers. Protagonist Norgren, for instance, is director of the Seattle Art Museum in two of his adventures (1991 and 1993), Alix lives in the city, and her paroled father, Geoff, has ended up working at the Seattle Art Museum as well.
            Which of the two series does better justice to the art world—Alix London or Chris Norgren—is for the reader to judge. But one thing is for sure: Alix London’s three escapades stanching art crime, under the guiding pen of Charlotte Elkins, pack a significant amount of art-world information and explication.
            The third and last title in the series, The Art Whisperer (2014), provides a taste of the author’s considerable art expertise, which richly adorns the following plot:
            Alix has arrived in Palm Springs, Calif., to do restoration work on an inventory of older paintings that the Brethwaite Museum is selling at auction to solve its financial problems. The Iron Lady who runs the museum, Mrs. Brethwaite, has just hired a new director, Clark Calder. He is cutting costs, consolidating departments, and laying off staff. He has also tried to modernize the museum by persuading Mrs. Brethwaite to buy a Jackson Pollock painting for millions of dollars. Indeed, the Pollock is drawing the most museum attendance.
            Nobody likes Clark, however. So from the start, he’s the likely villain of the piece. In fact, he had left his previous job at an Austin, Tx., museum when it was discovered that he bought a fake Whistler painting (a fake that Alix, in fact, had found out; a subplot here is that unbeknownst to Alix, Clark is venting his revenge against her by posting nasty, anonymous Internet blogs besmirching her reputation). The truth outs, of course. The Pollock is indeed a fake, and Clark knows it. He’s in cahoots with a corrupt art dealership in Manhattan, Lord and Keen, that sells fakes to unsuspecting local museums (as in the previous case with the Whistler in Austin).
            Into this conflicted world of the Palm Springs museum comes Alix, who immediately senses—by intuition alone—that the Pollock is a fake. She is being an annoying “art whisperer,” one museum staffer says. Her persistence, however, alarms Clark. So to shut Alix up, he enters her bungalow with a mask and tries to kill her. At first, the police think it might be the “Phantom Burglar” making the rounds in Palm Springs.
            As an apparent aside, one museum asset going to auction is a set of twelve miniature portraits on ceramic pendants. Again, Alix has the gut feeling that two of them might be authentic John Singleton Copley miniatures, and thus worth millions. The dumpy and balding Jerry Swanson, an overly-friendly auction appraiser who’s arrived from San Francisco, assures Alix that she’s wrong. The miniatures are by a lesser-known artist, and not worth much.
            Actually, though, Jerry realizes that Alix is correct. So he goes to Clark. They hatch a plan to buy the miniatures cheap at the coming auction, then launder them for millions.
            Eventually, the police agree with Alix’s theory that Clark Calder had tried to kill her before she could prove the Pollock was a fake. Then Clark himself is murdered, and confusion reigns. But only for a moment: it becomes clear that greedy Jerry Swanson didn’t want to share the miniatures’ auction profits with Clark. So Jerry ran him down with a rental car, simulating a random hit-and-run.
            From a previous “Alix London Mystery” novel, A Cruise to Die For (2013), Alix had done undercover work in the Mediterranean for Ted Ellesworth, special agent with FBI Art Crime Team. Now, by happy coincidence, Ted also arrives in Palm Springs. He is following the trail of the corrupt Lord and Keen art dealers from another angle.
            When Ted and Alix last met, matters had not ended well: she was almost killed by the Albanian mafia! Despite their secret love for each other, neither could surmount their mutually strong egos and competencies and put it into words.
            Now, in Palm Springs, the feelings are rekindled. They survive a car crash after Jerry Swanson cuts Alix’s break line. Back at a gala reception for the streamlined Brethwaite Museum, they put all the pieces together. They nab Jerry as he tries to make a run for it.
            Finally, Alix and Ted can have a dinner together in peace and quiet. Comparing notes, they realize they’ve had wrong impression. As Ted clarifies, “I’m in love with you, dimwit.” She concurs, calling him the same. And if a fourth novel appears, we definitely have a power couple to solve art crime of any dimension—Alix with her preternatural intuition about fakes, and Ted with the considerable resources of the FBI.
           For now, it was a great run and a tribute to the knowledge and imagination of Charlotte Elkins. (To come: a look at Chris Norgren, the other art sleuth).

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