A WAR CORRESPONDENT'S ART NOIR STORY IN EASTERN EUROPE
THE ART HISTORIAN Lynn H. Nichols is not a novelist. Since 1994, however, quite a few novelists have been in her debt.
Nichols wrote The Rape of Europa. It is the single best book on the Nazi looting of European art. And among her grateful following is novelist Dan Fesperman, who takes us into the Balkans and incorporates the WWII art-looting legacy into his unique detective novel, Lie in the Dark (1999). It may be the single best novel on the 1990s civil war in Bosnia (at least to this blog), thanks to its art world elements.
As a war correspondent in Bosnia, Fesperman gained real-life observations of the military, political, and cultural clashes of that time. He has used that knowledge to create an evocative backdrop for what begins as a murder investigation.
The story takes place in Sarajevo amid a four-year siege of the city (1992-96), a bitter part of the armed strife between ethnic Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, and Muslims after the breakup of Yugoslavia. During the siege, the Serbs are seeking to capture Sarajevo, a Bosnian government enclave.
Siege or not, life and crime go on. One night the local police chief, Esmir Vitas, is shot and killed by the river. Vitas is an honest cop dedicated to cracking down on gangsters who control various neighborhoods. Still, the Interior Ministry suspiciously concludes that Vitas was struck by an errant sniper bullet. It sends Inspector Vlado Petric—our hero and one of two city homicide detectives—to wrap up the case and file it away.
At the morgue, however, Petric obtains a scrap of paper from the victim’s pants pocket with a name and address. When he goes to this address, the real story, told by a former Yugoslav museum official named Milan Glavis, begins to unfold.
The story is this: At the end of WWII, representatives from countries invaded by the Nazis went to “collecting points” in Allied- and Soviet-occupied Germany to reclaim stolen art. The two men in charge of Sarajevo’s National Museum made this reclamation trip with a criminal plan in mind: to take paintings that are not really theirs.
Using blank slips, they forged bogus art claims on hundreds of works, spiriting them back to Sarajevo, a kind of looting in reverse. The museum was too small, so they farmed out the paintings, mainly to offices and homes of the new Communist Party elite. To keep track of these transfers of art, they produced a “transfer file” with a card and notations for each artwork.
“We knew all along where everything was,” the former museum director tells Inspector Petric.
Now, in the chaos of the Sarajevo siege, a district warlord, Commander Zarko, has used his control of a city sector to round up the “transferred” art to sell it on the black market. Once Zarko is killed, however, a small group of high-ranking Interior Ministry “special police” and a few military men decided to take over the art smuggling ring. They send the art to Frankfurt for illicit sales in the West.
To pull this off, the corrupt officials have engaged in a lot of “sweet-talking UNESCO underlings and blue-helmeted shipping officers” who oversee the UN-controlled airport—the only way to ship materials out of Sarajevo.
Gradually, Inspector Petric realizes that his government superiors had probably killed Vitas to protect the smuggling operation. To investigate further could mean his own death, and yet Petric continues to dig deeper into the maze of corruption. His investigation takes him across dangerous check points and into some of the worst zones of the city. More than once, he takes a car or taxi down “Sniper Alley,” with fingers crossed.
For example, he heads for the notorious neighborhood of Dobrinja: “If Sarajevo had become a sort of hell on earth, Dobrinja was it innermost circle of despair and isolation.” The driver must avoid “shell holes and torn metal without slowing down enough to invite gunfire.” Serbian snipers are on three sides.
When the museum director-informant also shows up dead at the morgue, Petric knows he can no longer trust his police superiors (or even his partner, who tries to kill him in the end). So he hooks up with British war correspondent Toby Perkins. Toby’s got an armored Land Rover and UN press pass to get through check points. “An art smuggle operation,” Toby realizes. “And with some very big fish involved.”
Petric also has a female ally, Amira, a “farm wife” who came to the city to survive as a prostitute outside the military barracks. She was a witness to the Vitas shooting. She ends up offering a safe house for Petric and Toby (and a place to hide paintings and the transfer file).
In this novel, artworks are not described, except for focusing on an “impressionist masterpiece” of a “field of lilies” hung in the apartment of Petric’s informant. In the last pages, this is the painting that Petric finds on its way to Frankfurt, where he hopes to use it as proof of the art crimes swirling about Sarajevo.
Readers of detective noir will find Lie in the Dark to be a familiar friend. It evokes the dark atmosphere of works such as Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios, and Graham Greene’s The Third Man.
In the last chapter, we find Petric inside a crate with one of the paintings being shipped to Germany (indeed, the very same impressionist lilies). The crate is almost opened by guards, but since a corrupt police official knows the crate contains his latest stolen cache, he tells the guards to pass over it. This is the novel’s last satisfying twist. The plane, with Petric, is off to Germany.
The story began with Inspector Petric seeing gravediggers on a snowy hill, and in flight, he looks out a crack in the crate and sees the same snowy hill, soon to have its gravediggers at work again.