Thursday, February 11, 2016

A ‘Cozy’ Detective Plot Gives Artists Motives to Kill Critics (no. 23)

 by Larry Witham


SOME PLOT DEVICES in fiction are never out of season, especially in detective mysteries.
            Agatha Christie created one indelible format with her And Then There Were None (1939). A group of people are invited to an island estate. The next morning one of them is dead. Everyone is stranded there for the rest of the story. Each person is a momentary suspect (at least until he or she also is murdered).
       Of modern-day writers, the Canadian author Louise Penny has probably best applied this “Agatha Christie formula” to the art world. Indeed, Penny is a three-time winner of the Agatha Christie Award for detective novels.
            In Penny’s A Trick of the Light (2011), a cast of art world characters attend a party at the home of fifty-something artist Clara Morrow, who has just broken through with a heralded painting exhibit at the famed Musée in Montreal. Clara lives in the nearby rural town of Three Pines with her artist husband, Peter.
            The next morning, an unexpected visitor—and childhood friend of Clara—is found chocked to death in the garden. She is Lilian, who had given up an artist career to become an acerbic art critic at a Canadian newspaper. And because Lilian’s caustic reviews had ruined more than a few artist careers, any of the art world people celebrating Clara’s exhibition might have a motive to kill her.
       A Trick of Light is Penny’s seventh installment of her Chief Inspector Gamache series. So naturally, Gamache arrives in Three Pines. He sets up his homicide shop and starts going down the list of suspects. The list is considerable, with motives seemingly everywhere.
            Even after the murder, and after the party, the key characters find reasons to stay around Three Pines. This makes it convenient in the end for all of them to be in the same hotel restaurant when Gamache (as a Christie-style detective) reveals the logic of his deductions and fingers the culprit, who then, in turn, vents all the reasons for the murder.
            Besides the art world themes, two other topics weigh heavily in this village melodrama. One is a foray into the Montreal Alcoholics Anonymous, to which the victim and at least two suspects belong. A second keynote is marital tension. Of the four marriages mentioned in the story, three are about to end in separation or divorce. Gamache’s marriage is the only one that escapes the turmoil.
            Through the character of Clara Morrow, Penny explores the interior life of all artists, the vast majority of whom will never have the luck that Clara has had—finally being discovered, if late in life. For that matter, an array of art-world players are dissected by Penny with surprising insight and subtlety.
            There may be a few howlers, nevertheless. At one point in the dialogue, characters joke at how everyone says artworks are “stunning,” making it a meaningless term. Yet at the same time, the sincere dialogue speaks of the “genius” of paintings by Clara and by Lilian, as if the two talented ladies share a perch with Einstein and Michelangelo.
            It is the critics from New York to London who have declared Clara the artist of the hour, however. And it's that acclaim that draws the art glitterati to her Three Pines art party. Penny takes us through the crowd, where we find jealousy, the politics of art shows and art dealers, and the clashing tastes in art styles.
            The party draws three cagey art dealers. A suspicious art couple lingers about. Then there is husband Peter, an unsuccessful avant-garde painter. He has long belittled Clara’s traditional paintings, but now those paintings have shot to fame.
            One clue soon jumps out. During her art critic days, Lilian had written that one Canadian artist was “a natural, producing art like a bodily function.” Everyone in the Canadian art world remembers the slur, but no one can remember who Lilian was writing about. Indeed, this person seems to be the killer, wreaking revenge on Lilian, who had suggested that the art was human waste.
            By the end, we think the killer must be an artist named Suzanne. She was Lilian’s friend at the AA meetings. After a novel-long search in old newspapers, one of Chief Inspector Gamache’s staff finds that Lilian’s “bodily function” review was about Suzanne’s art work. The tarring had ended Suzanne’s artistic career. The junior cops believe they’ve wrapped up the case (since by now, Suzanne has lied several times).
            But the philosophically-inclined chief inspector is wiser.
            As Gamache plods along (this is a kind of “cozy” mystery, after all, with dialogue that is both clever and illuminating), he probes one red herring (false lead) after another. He agrees that someone had killed Lilian for her abusive reviews, but for him the timing and scene of the crime are the most crucial.
            Everyone finally gathers in the Three Pines hotel. Chief Inspector Gamache unfurls his impeccable logic. One of the art dealers is the murderer, he declares, naming the name and pointing the finger. The assembly is shocked. Before the dealer went into the business, he too had aspired to be an artist. But critic Lilian had cut him off at the knees. As Gamache also explains, the dealer wanted to tarnish Clara’s success by having a murder blight her art party: the dealer had once represented Clara, later terminated her at the gallery, and now resents her success without him.
            One red herring was interesting from the start. Clara and Lilian had been best friends as girls. Both became aspiring young artists. But Lilian had stolen Clara’s ideas, so they had a bitter falling out. At one point, Lilian’s parents accuse Clara of killing Lilian over that past hostility.
            In the end, however, the story returns to clueless Peter, husband of the now famous artist, Clara Morrow. Clara believes that because Peter is not truly happy about her astounding success, he does not truly love her. She asks Peter to leave for a year (a modern marriage solution?). It’s take-a-break time for some artistic soul-searching. In all, a well-plotted cozy that also, inescapably, has a message, probably about women in the art world.

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