Monday, January 18, 2016

Novelist Creates ‘Family Sagas’ with Art Objects (no. 16)

 by Larry Witham


EPIC NOVELS CAN lay out a story lasting centuries. The preferred approach has been the “family saga.” Our collective bookshelves bulge with them: Brideshead Revisited by Waugh, The Covenant by Michener, Roots by Haley, The House of the Spirits by Allende, and The Immigrants by Fast (to name only a few).
            A lesser-used species of the saga chronicles the life of an artifact, document, or treasure over hundreds of years and across the fates of generations. This formula has been happily exploited by the English historian and adventure writer Derek Wilson. He dubs his series “artworld mysteries.”
            The six novels feature British protagonist Tim Lacy, a modern-day security expert with a crack military background and a taste for objets d’art. Lacy repeatedly stumbles upon long-lost treasures ensnared in modern-day crime. The odds are tough, the villain is bad, and yet Lacy will always pull through, stylishly, in fact.
            The first title in the series, The Triarchs (1994), features a fictional painting by Raphael, the Renaissance artist. One half of the novel has Lacy gallivanting around the world in pursuit of the stolen Raphael. Spliced into this adventure, the other half of the novel tracks the five-hundred-year journey of the artwork itself, from its origins to the current dilemma.
            As a historian, Wilson is remarkably adept at finding turning points in the past and inserting the particular artwork of the hour—a painting, manuscript, artifact, etc.—into the thick of the crisis. The approach has a formulaic element, of course.
            In fact, the Triarchs provides a good anatomy lesson in how this formula is applied. Like the double helix of DNA, Wilson gives the novel two strands: the several week period of the contemporary crime and the centuries-long history of the painting. Let’s disentangle these two strands to see both storylines in isolation. We begin with the contemporary crime.
            One day, Lacy’s old flame, Venetia, inherits her uncle’s estate, Farrans Court, with its old paintings, one of which gets a visiting art dealer murdered in the attic. She goes to Lacy for help. He realize the painting in question is a long-lost Raphael (fictitious), The Triarchs (in which Raphael depicts Pope Julius II and two secular rulers as the three magi before the Christ child).
            Lacy finds the painting at the dead dealer’s shop, but so do the violent henchmen of a top global art thief, Karakis, a nefarious Greek. His bumbling operatives had hidden an entire cache of paintings in the vacant Farrans. Once Lacy meets the thugs, they play cat and mouse until Karakis holds Venetia hostage. Lacy is forced to hand over the painting.
            A while later, Lacy is summoned to Japan, where a yakuza-businessman wants him to build a security system. The yakuza boss is about to buy the Raphael and other paintings from Karakis. Lacy and the yakuza find common cause in tricking Karakis. And meanwhile, Lacy and the yakuza’s American personal assistant, Catherine, fall in love (and get married at the end, turning Farrans into an art center).
            Soon, Karakis arrives in Japan, Lacy poses as an art expert, and they rendezvous on a yacht near a Greek island to authenticate the Raphael. Lacy’s undercover team arrives, there’s gun play, and a final shootout-explosion culminates on the island, which is Karakis’s secret warehouse. Lacy thinks the Raphael is destroyed. Actually it was spirited off by helicopter before the island blew to bits. It will end up happily in the National Gallery, London.
            Now let’s turn to the isolated story of the Raphael painting, which Wilson has woven into the crime plot.
            It’s the sixteenth century in Rome, and Raphael is summoned by the pope to paint a religious picture solemnizing a three-way alliance against Venice. Thus, the “triarchs” as magi. Venice, however, licks the alliance in a few battles, and gloats over capturing the Raphael painting that celebrates the pope’s overconfidence.
            The Raphael painting is handed down through an aristocratic Venetian family, developing the rumor that it has a curse. The latest owner decides to give it to a Dutch trader, and he takes it to England as a prize for the royal court of King Charles I.
            Then comes the English Civil War. The Puritan iconoclasts of Cromwell eviscerate the British royalty of all their art (and behead Charles). Yet the Raphael gains safekeeping by a loyal servant of the royal household. When Charles II restores the monarchy, the painting is foolishly lost to a French aristocrat in a bet over a horse race.
            The Frenchman takes it back to Paris, but in time, the French Revolution ransacks his family wealth. The painting lies unheeded in a decaying country estate. An enterprising architect under Napoleon finds the painting, and sells it at auction in England.
            An Austrian banker buys the Raphael. Back in Vienna, amidst an anti-Semitic financial battle with a rival Jewish banker, the Jewish family gets the painting. It is inherited by a Catholic daughter-in-law who marries the Jewish son.
            In time, the Nazis take the painting, and it ends up in a Bavarian salt mine with hundreds of other looted treasures. One of the American GI’s who first found the mine helped himself to a truckload of treasure. In these, the Raphael was sent to his home in Los Angeles. Afraid to sell the loot, it stayed hidden until 1988, when the GI—old, guilt-ridden, and dying of cancer—sells the story to a reporter.
            Aha, now the connection! The reporter recruits an art appraiser before he declares the news of Nazi loot found in Los Angeles. The appraiser, crooked to be sure, calls Karakis and sells him the Raphael and all the rest. The LA cache becomes part of what was hidden at the Farrans Estate in England, hidden until it could be disposed of on the art black market.
            No chance, though, Karakis, when Tim Lacy is your opponent.
            Wilson has given the Raphael painting the aura—and remarkable specifics—of a family saga. He’s done this not by people recalling the past as they uncover letters or documents (a time-honored plotting device), but by presenting a real-time narrative. This breaks the rule that says “no flashbacks” in a forward-moving novel. Entirely half of this novel is a flashback—and yet Wilson pulls it off: he’s got the formula down. Over more than ten generations, he has turned a painting into a family saga—and Tim Lacy gets rich and married in the end.

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