Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Small Painting Solves the Biggest Mystery about Shakespeare (no. 45)

 by Larry Witham


WHEN THE 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was celebrated last week (April 23), there was little mention of the dispute over who The Bard really was. The topic is apparently still ripe, however, and that’s why it was taken up in Charlie Lovett’s recent novel, The Bookman’s Tale (2013).
            In this work of fiction, an eighteenth century watercolor painting solves the great mystery of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays: a bard born in Stratford England, or someone else (such as the statesman Francis Bacon)? The novel comes down on the side of the man from Stratford, the majority opinion, of course.
            Literary academia has been ruffled by this long-simmering dispute over the origin of the plays for good reason: There is no surviving documentation about the existence of a flesh-and-blood “William Shakespeare.” Also, there’s nothing that counts as his original handwriting or signature.
            In The Bookman’s Tale, Lovett carries us into that controversy, using an artwork to ignite the entire adventure. The thirty-something American protagonist, Peter Byerly, finds a watercolor portrait from the Victorian age that looks just like his late wife, who had recently died of brain cancer. Byerly traces the picture to a long-ago owner of a Shakespeare-related text that includes a signature of The Bard himself, thus proving he really existed and took credit for his plays.
            Getting to this revelation, however, is the novel’s complex task, accomplished well enough with the normal amount or remarkable coincidences.
            One of them is the watercolor itself. It measures only four by four inches, and yet gives the hero undisputed visual proof that “the resemblance [to his dead wife] was uncanny.” The tiny watercolor “showed a woman seated in front of a mirror, combing a long tress of dark hair. . . . The dark hair and pale skin were Amanda’s as were the straight shoulders … the countenance … the narrow face, the high, pale forehead; and above all the deep green eyes.”
             This was quite a feat of visual interpretation by Byerly, but it was enough to get the novel going (with a clue that fits inside an old book) and enough to propel the hero into an undaunted investigation.
            To wit: “The mystery of the watercolor’s origins felt deeply personal and Peter [Byerly] could already feel curiosity and grief melding into obsession. He had to know where this painting came from—how a hundred-year-old portrait of his wife, who had been born only twenty-nine years ago, had come to be tucked into an eighteenth-century book on Shakespeare forgeries. The problem was how to begin. Peter had never worked with paintings before.”
       Author Lovett, an expert in old books and a former antiquarian bookseller, knows the “who was 'Shakespeare'?” debate well and has built his novel on that intellectual thread. In the end, his protagonist proves the conventional “Stratfordian” theory that, despite no knowledge about a man named something like Shakespeare, he was indeed a real individual, and clearly a literary genius.
            The novel opens to readers the arcane bibliophile world by way of Byerly’s snooping in England and, in flashbacks, his time in North Carolina, where his wife’s dynastic family founded a college with the “Deveraux Rare Books Room.” The Deveraux family line runs back to Amanda’s great grandmother who is, indeed, the woman in the watercolor (and thus Amanda looks like her).
            That great grandmother, however, was the love child between a married Victorian book collector (an amateur watercolorist) and a forbidden mistress named Isabel (who is in the painting). Being illegitimate, Isabel’s daughter was reared by the Deveraux family. And so it is, finally, that Byerly’s wife, Amanda Deveraux, looks like Isabel. This same adulterous collector (who committed suicide out of guilt for his moral wrong) had owned the secret proof of Shakespeare’s signature, and had hidden it away.
            Now Byerly has found it. Although Byerly is suffering from the loss of his wife, Amanda, thanks to her, he will stumble into great fortune. He gains legal ownership of all the newly-discovered Shakespeare papers, and to boot, inherit a $14 million Deveraux bequest to the last surviving member of the family (which is Byerly by his marriage). We cheer for this young man; even before he met Amanda, he was a nervous introvert who took anxiety pills and saw a psychiatrist.
            Meanwhile, the author has used the “watercolor clue” to put art into this otherwise bibliophile novel, rich with the inside baseball of antiquarian book collectors.
            Watercolors are a great English tradition. The novel introduces some of its aura by describing an association of “eccentric British watercolor enthusiasts,” some of whom help Byerly with his investigation. One of them becomes his new love interest. Together they track down the dastardly book collector who is hiding Shakespearean evidence for financial gain.
            In ways, the novel is like a Hardy Boys adventure. There are secret documents, hidden tombs, forged books, furtive individuals lurking in the dark, and a denouement in which Byerly walks through a mile of pitch-dark tunnel, finds a wooden door at the end, and suddenly arrives in a well-lit study of a British estate. Voilà, the villain stands before him!
       The child-like quality of this story of true love, tragic death, and final wealth and fame (almost Dickensian) is augmented by the adult world as well—an adult world narrated in three time periods. The novel interweaves the post-Shakespearean era; the time of Peter and Amanda’s courtship; and the period of widower Byerly making his discovery in a bookshop in a small Welsh town.
            For adult consumption, the past is filled with infidelity, illegitimate births, blackmail, forgery, and suicide. In Byerly’s present there’s anxiety pills, two murders, frequent sex scenes in the college antiquarian book room, alcoholic parents, shrill profanity, millionaire parents, a nearly fatal appendicitis, and finally sudden death by brain cancer.
       In other words, there’s not much that The Bookman’s Tale leaves out, either for the young at heart, or for those who like stories built upon one improbably sad misfortune after another.
       When it comes to art, however, The Bookman’s Tale naturally takes the kind of liberty necessary for writers who’ve never worked with paint. Watercolor is a notoriously difficult medium with which to do an accurate, tiny portrait. Even so, Byerly finds a watercolor that, after a hundred years, is so precise that he knows he’s looking at his wife’s genetic heritage.
       Not a major demerit, of course. The Bookman’s Tale has so many fantastical coincidences that the watercolor jibes with the entire narrative. Call it an R-rated Hardy Boy’s adventure for book lovers. Art lovers, meantime, will be pleased to know that a tiny painting can revolutionize literary history, as Byerly so often reminds readers in his quest.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Uber-Wealthy’s Compulsion to ‘Acquire’ Artsy Things (no. 44)

 by Larry Witham


High society. Art and antiques. A posh estate on Long Island. And, of course, the warped emotions of the filthy rich. That’s the world that underwrites Trick of the Eye (1992), author-socialite Jane Stanton Hitchcock’s story of a female artist invited into that glittering realm. It’s a world that Hitchcock herself apparently knows all too well.
            The author, a best-seller of noir novels about the rich, is herself heiress to two fortunes, one by birth (and adoption) and the other by marriage into the Andrew Mellon dynasty. While this does not reflect poorly on Hitchcock’s authorial life, it has given her a peek into the netherworld of wealth and privilege that she merciless roasts, at least in Trick of the Eye.
            It’s the story of Faith Cromwell, a thirty-nine-year-old artist who specializes in trompe l’oeil painting, the craft of putting up illusionary images intended to imitate real objects. In the novel, Faith speaks of her admiration, for example, of how Veronese painted so much illusionary imagery in palaces designed by the architect Palladio in and around Venice: walls covered with flora, fauna, people, and faux architectural illusions.
            On a smaller scale, this is what Faith does for a living. It typically puts her in the circles of New York’s well-off, those active in interior decoration, for example. One day she gets a job inquiry from Mrs. Frances Griffin, one of the wealthiest tastemakers in New York. She is an old widow whose daughter was murdered and whose husband died of a drug overdose. Anyway, her name in high society still reverberates. And Faith’s “best friend,” an elderly gay man named Harry Pitt, who she had met thirteen years earlier in their common art-and-antiques world, recommended she take the Griffin job.
            The task is no less than for Faith to design and paint a giant blank ballroom that had been built in the Long Island estate twenty years earlier but never used. That was because it was built for Mrs. Griffin’s only daughter’s coming out party, at which the daughter, Cassandra, did not attend. Later, Cassandra was found dead, stabbed through the heart in her bedroom.
            The rational for now painting the ballroom, at least as Mrs. Griffin informs Faith, is to bring it to life in memory of Cassandra. Faith gets to work, producing a vast trompe l’oeil of a gala party, painted on the walls and ceiling. As the final touch, a lifelike Cassandra is to be painted at the center of the composition.
            Things get very strange, however. Mrs. Griffin seems emotionally tortured, not to mention dying of cancer. Sympathetic to the old woman, Faith is compelled to find out who really murdered her daughter. The police hit a wall, and it was cold case. As it was said, “everyone knew” that Cassandra was obviously murdered by her husband Roberto, a handsome Italian ski instructor/bum whom the parents never liked.
            With the help of Harry Pitt—a mysterious figure himself—Faith tracks down Roberto in Colorado, leading the life of a remorseful drunk. From him she learns the identity of the murderer: Cassandra’s father, the family patriarch, Holt Griffin. He had sexually abused Cassandra since she was eleven. After a fight, Holt stabbed her to death. Once Faith returns to the estate with this knowledge, Mrs. Griffin divulges a shocking scheme and makes an audacious offer.
            Several years before Faith had met Harry Pitt, Harry was a good friend of Mrs. Griffin. Harry helped her “acquire” art and antiques. They discussed Mrs. Griffin’s desire to “acquire” an adopted daughter to take the place of the murdered Cassandra. Before long, Harry found Faith as the perfect candidate. He assessed and cultivated Faith for thirteen years, making sure she was as close a replacement to the departed Cassandra as possible. Faith is the same age, looks similar, loves art (like Mrs. Griffin) and has the same bad judgment as Cassandra in boyfriends.
            Of course, the domineering Mrs. Griffin is used to getting her own way. So she just assumes Faith will accept the adoption scheme. The lawyer will draw up the papers. After that, Faith will take care of Mrs. Griffin for the little time she has left (because of the supposed cancer). Faith then inherits wealth beyond her wildest dreams. Emotionally, moreover, Faith-as-adopted-daughter is expected to “forgive” the old woman for all the sins of her life, foremost, letting her evil husband abuse their daughter.
            Stunned, Faith sleeps on the offer, but turns it down the next day. She made her own life and does not want to give that up. Mrs. Griffin is outraged. She goes into a rage. Then, suddenly calm, the old lady apologizes. She invites Faith back the next day to retrieve the check for her trompe l’oeil artwork. She even praises Faith for the brilliance of the ballroom paintings, including the fact that Faith put her own self-portrait on the face of the lost daughter (at Mrs. Griffin’s request).
            Faith is exultant in her artistic achievement. She is also pleased that she and Mrs. Griffin can at least be friends thereafter. On returning for the check, however, she finds the entire ballroom whitewashed and acid thrown on her self-portrait. The butler gives her the check, which is ten times more than agreed upon. And then he tells her that Mrs. Griffin actually doesn’t have cancer; she will probably live for many more years. Faith tears up the check, leaves the house, and seeing the old woman in the window laughing, points an accusing finger at her.
            At first upset that Harry Pitt had been setting her up all these years, Faith reconciles with his good intentions. During her time in Colorado, in fact, the elderly Harry had died of natural causes. He leaves her an old-master’s painting, which ends up quite valuable. On its sale Faith upgrades her finances, her trompe l’oeil business, and life goes on.
            The novel was made into a for-television movie, Trick of the Eye (1994) (later marketed in DVD as Primal Secrets), giving the talented Ellen Burstyn a starring role as the rich and demented Mrs. Griffin. The wide-eyed Meg Tilly (as Faith) also does her part.
            The novel is full of mini-sermons against wealth, possessions, faithless men, and the superficiality of the rich (but there’s no taboo on graphic and gratuitous sex scenes, of course). Incidentally, author Hitchcock, with her divorce from the Mellon clan, and her lawsuit against an embezzling wealth manager, knows this world up close. Her former marriage into the Mellon line has an art connection as well. Andrew Mellon, the patriarch, gave his art collection to the nation, the start of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

When a Painter Becomes an Artful Serial Killer (no. 43)

 by Larry Witham


FROM JACK THE Ripper to Ted Bundy, the serial killer has taken a storied place in Western culture. Not surprisingly, the number of novels about serial killers—in the hundreds—has far outpaced their actual number in reality.
            Yet for all this furious wordsmithing about such many and varied sickos, none has been a painter—until now, the twenty-first century. Artist and novelist Jonathan Santlofer began to remedy this absence in 2002 with the first of his painter-as-serial killer tales.
            His novels introduce New York cop Kate McKinnon, daughter of a legendary policeman, and now a famous TV art historian—until, again and again, she is drawn back into the detective role to solve grisly crimes that fall on her doorstep.
            The misdeeds are all by a serial killers who use paintings as a way to mock the police with clues, or to act out the inner insanity that drives their gruesome actions. Santlofer’s first two novels—The Death Artist (2002) and Color Blind (2004)—give a feel for the author’s studied approach (also seen in a third McKinnon caper in 2009).
            Kate McKinnon is a good-hearted woman. Her ken for mentoring disadvantaged youth in New York, and her centrality to the vibrant art scene of Manhattan, gives Santlofer plenty of opportunities to pull heart strings and fill his prose with the names of historic artists, styles, and “artspeak.” Santlofer himself did okay as a Manhattan artist at one time. But he is probably doing better as a novelist. In hindsight he portrays the art world as mostly dark and petty. He obviously loves art and fiction (he has hosted fiction conferences in New York), but for his kind of novel, the quest is for unfettered perversions. There’s a fan base, of course.
            The Death Artist opens with the killing of one of Kate McKinnon’s female wards. The killer poses the corpse to mimic a famous painting. The cops sense this, and call in Kate to interpret. The killings continue: the historic paintings they mimic are the clues left behind.
            As side plots, Kate has another youth she mentors, obviously a kind of Jean-Michel Basquiat (who continues in the second novel), and a millionaire lawyer husband who, with her, is deep in the Manhattan black-tie charity world (oh dear, he’s murdered at the opening of the second novel, by the way).
            In the Death Artist, we meet quite an array of art world figures. There’s pornographers, snob collectors, gallerists, and art critics. You might have guessed the killer from the start: he is the uptight white guy who liked traditional art. To be fair, Santlofer is just as hard on the avant-garde, of which he was a part as a latter-day abstract painter.
            Color Blind opens as we might expect. The killer eviscerates a hooker and, it seems, does a painting at the scene of the crime. The same scenario follows. “Two eviscerated women, two paintings left at the scene,” a cop says. A job for Kate, the art historian. The headlines read, “Bad Painter Good Killer,” and the killings and painting continue.
            Back on the Color Blind case, Kate notices how odd the paintings are, with their “wild, inaccurate color.” This is Santlofer’s opportunity to introduce us to Outsider Art, which includes art done my mental health patients. If the uptight white guy in his previous Death Artist was severely oppressed by his father, the killer in Color Blind was abused by his hooker-mother, who sold him as boy into a New York sex ring. As it turns out, Kate discovers that the grown-up boy (who she had rescued from the sex ring!) was later studied in a famous medical journal article. As one doctor said, “Something had crushed the pathway from the vision center of his brain, rendering him completely color blind.”
            As the young, handsome, baby-faced “monster” tells Kate in the final showdown, he must kill to evoke color vision: “It’s the only way I can see the colors.” Still, his color comes back wrong, and that’s why his paintings have purple bananas, blue apples, and pears that are orange.
            If one can happily navigate the gore, these novels will delight fans of art history facts and figures, especially of the present. The Death Artist does hark back to Renaissance imagery—St. Sebastian pierced with arrows is illustrative—but Color Blind is a great name dropper of the modern: Kandinsky, Albers, Kline, Ellsworth Kelly, Mondrian, Van Doesburg, Matisse, Derain, Duffy, Dubuffet, and Jasper Johns. Naturally, Santlofer also introduces us to the rudiments of color theory.
            The young killer goes to a famous colorist painter, a man of depraved character and vanity, but who nevertheless is interviewed by Kate for her PBS television show, Artist’s Lives (this is probably modeled after the PBS Art 21: it certainly echo’s Vasari seminal Renaissance work, Lives of the Artists). This painter tells Kate, “I’d absolutely kill myself if I was denied the use of color.” Well, the killer sees this on TV. He goes to the man for help seeing color, and—unsatisfied—kills him, too. As crime novelist often will do, Santlofer avoids making Kate a complete saint: her actions often draw other innocent victims into the killer’s path.
            The McKinnon trilogy defines a serial killer subgenre. It would be hard to imagine how anyone could do more than the multi-talented Santlofer to embed a modern day Jack the Ripper in the world of art. (By contrast, we do have novels about single murders tied into perverse art projects).
            We end with the headline, “Serial Killer Captured.” Kate is with her surrogate daughter, Nola, who was once under the killer’s knife. Young Nola, a single mom on leave from finishing her art history degree at Barnard College, is now nursing her new baby. Kate—without parents, husband or child of her own—takes the restless infant gracefully into her arms. The world is a safe place once again.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Tracking Down the ‘Italian Art Squad’ in Fiction (no. 42)

 by Larry Witham


MEET THE "ITALIAN Art Squad" in fiction. In the real world, it was formed in 1969 as a seminal event, the first national police force in the world dedicated to art crime. The squad began to appear in novels in 1991, and since then, three authors have tapped the Italian institution’s bravado, or otherwise, to craft stories of crime, art and mystery.
            The first out the gate was British novelist Ian Pears, whose The Raphael Affair (1991) launched his “art history” mysteries (seven installments through 2000) with the story of a forlorn British art history academic in Rome meeting his match, a female art-crime investigator.
            He is Jonathan Argyll and she is Flavia di Stefano, the “brightest assistant in the Italian National Art Theft Squad,” according to her boss, General Taddeo Bottando. Argyll, unable to land a good job, has become a traveling agent looking for good art purchases for a London art dealer. This takes him to Rome, embroils him in an art theft and murder, and mingles his and Flavia’s lives.
            She is all business, a feisty northern Italian. In contrast, Argyll’s detective instincts prevail in spite of his bookish self. In each novel, while General Bottando fights for his budget, and against the Italian police bureaucracy, Jonathan and Flavia—sometimes he in the lead, sometimes she—traipse into murder cases linked to art world figures, typically academics, collectors, and dealers.
            The delight of these novels is not so much the cache of art information (which Pears leaves to a bare minimum) as the dialogue between Jonathan and Flavia. She is “a woman with a long-standing disapproval of those who smuggle the Italian heritage out of the country,” Jonathan reports.
            They start out getting on each other’s nerves. Even by novel no. 3, The Bernini Bust (1993), the story laments that: “She was a wonderful companion and a perfect friend, but though Argyll had worked hard to persuade her to be something more, his labors had produced remarkably little result.” That would change, of course. By the last novel, they are married and teaming up on art crime.
            Taking up the art-squad-fiction-baton in 2007, art historian Noah Charney wrote The Art Thief. He did so as director of an institute for the study of international art crime. The novel, much more of an academic treatise than anything in Pears’s works, opens with the theft of a Caravaggio painting in a small Italian church. Indeed, as one of the lengthy lectures in the novel explicates, it was a 1969 theft of a Caravaggio that prompted the founding of the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale, or Carabinieri Art Squad (the Carabinieri being the Italian military and civilian police).
            The Art Thief follows a veritable maze of clues related to the theft of the Caravaggio and a “white on white” painting by the Russian “Suprematist” Kazimir Malevich. It also takes pains to show the workings of the Carabinieri and art squads in London (Scotland Yard) and France. One of the art thieves (we learn in the end) is Gabriel Coffin, a former special investigator for the Italian Art Squad. He has helped his lover, Daniela Vallombroso, wreak revenge on a former client who framed her for a past theft, putting her in prison.
            All of this novel plotting involves a good deal of technical explanation about forgery, overpainting, and cleaning. It keeps the reader’s head spinning. In all, however, it boils down to Daniela’s victory over a corrupt collector, in fact, the very man who had hired Coffin to steal the Caravaggio. With Coffin’s help, Daniela has tricked her nemesis out of the Caravaggio, and, “We’ve also deprived him of his family’s greatest treasure, his original White on White,” she summarizes.
            To tell this story, novelist Charney has the Caravaggio and Malevich paintings interchanging quite a lot, both having fake versions and then this: In the end, in a secret art room, Coffin shows Daniela how he can remove the ‘white on white” with a mild solvent to reveal the authentic Caravaggio (a fake having been returned to the Carabinieri).
            Then in 2013, the first novel of the “Rick Montoya Italian Mysteries” series, written by former Foreign Service officer David P Wagner, presents another take on the Italian Art Squad. Rick Montoya, who had studied in Italy as son of a diplomat, returns as a professional translator. To boot, his uncle is an Italian policeman. Rick’s old school friend is now head of Rome’s art squad, bearing the title Commissario Carlo Conti. He sends Rick north on a surreptitious mission.
            The suspected crime is the smuggling and forgery of pre-Roman Etruscan stoneware, valuable artifacts in the national culture. The scene of the misdeeds is Tuscany, specifically, the picturesque hill town of Volterra. Rick’s task quickly becomes ominous when, a day after he visits a gallery, one of its staff falls over a steep city cliff to his death.
             After arriving in the steep town, Rick gradually meets three suspects on Commissario Conti’s list: museum curator Arnolfo Zerbino; gallery owner Antonio Landi; and, import/export man Rino Polpetto. Rick also becomes romantically caught between his old American girlfriend, an art historian in Italy, and a gorgeous but shady local art dealer, Donatella, who seems to pursue him (and she, too, may be the villain). Moreover, the police in Volterra seem to resent Rick sticking his nose into their affairs. They follow him darkly. Even they seem likely suspects.
            We go down the list of possible villains, always feeling we’ve found him or her, and of course, it’s the person not on the A-list, or seemingly the most blameless of them all. Rick always thought it was Landi. But it turns out to be Zerbino, a learned man who is supposed to be a guardian of the national patrimony. Instead, he is discreetly selling the museum’s real Etruscan artifacts for money to support its upkeep, and then hires craftsmen to make fakes to take their place in the secure glass exhibit shelves.
            The story ends, as it must in Italy, with a good Italian meal.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hollywood Can be a Stage Set for the Art Novel (no. 41)

 by Larry Witham


ON OCCASION, THE Academy Awards season will prompt a movie critic to list the best American novels that “hold a mirror to Hollywood.” The number barely tops ten, and so novels about Hollywood and the art world are rarer still.
            There are at least three Hollywood novels with art themes. One of them, Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust (1939), has been ranked as a great American novel. Its two successors are far humbler, yet all three have some traits in common.
            One of them is the craziness of the film industry. In Day of the Locust, the hero, a Yale-trained artist named Todd Hackett, unmasks all the illusions of Tinseltown in the 1930s. The narrative also focuses on the career failures of Faye, a young bit actress. The story ends with the public rioting at a world premier movie, disillusioned by all it represents.
            The film industry does not come off much better in two contemporary novels. Hollywood Hills (2010) is one of Joseph Wambaugh’s wacky Hollywood-cops series. The plot tracks around a painting stolen from a B-movie director’s home. In The Monet Murders (2015), Terry Mort introduces Riley Fitzhugh, a “private investigator to the stars.” It is a humorous riff on the 1930s hardboiled detective and Fitzhugh’s habit of sending girl friends to have a “screen test.”
            That suggests the second common theme: the quest of aspiring talent to make it in the movies. At the heart of Day of the Locust is Faye’s quest, and in Wambaugh’s Hollywood Hills even the main cop character (“Hollywood Nate” Weiss) moonlights as a screen actor.
            A third and final feature of these three Hollywood-and-art novels is the ambiance of Southern California, focused on Hollywood mansions, poolside scenes, and coastal drives.
            So, what are the art elements in these three works?
            Day of the Locust is richest in this respect. The main character is an artist. Unable to find work after his fine-arts training, Hackett arrives in LA to draw costumes. He is recruited by telegram and grabs the Hollywood job “despite the arguments of his friends, who were certain that he was selling out and would never paint again.”
            In Los Angeles, Hackett sees a weary race of workers, disillusioned and bored. “They discover that sunshine isn’t enough.” They expected Hollywood movies to give them their silver lining. Hackett is fascinated by the illusions of large Hollywood sets and by this smoldering plebian population. They are “the people he felt he must paint,” but paint in the ominous style of a Goya or Daumier, or in the manner of the old Italian “painters of decay and mystery.”
            Hackett soon envisions a painting to be titled The Burning of Los Angeles. He sketches it over the following weeks, seeing in his vision the city on fire and an unhappy population that “sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.” 
            And so it happens in the end, ignited by the riot outside Kahn’s Palace Theater. The riot is indistinguishable from Hackett’s vision for the painting. In effect, he predicts Hollywood’s fate, even though he “was an artist, not a prophet.” If he ever completes the painting, though, it will “not be judged by the accuracy with which it foretold a future event, but by its merits as painting.” The artist escapes the riot with an injured leg.
            Like other authors who’ve put Hollywood in fiction, West had been a screen writer there in the 1930s. In our day, Wambaugh had been a member of the LAPD. He’s also helped write screen plays Hollywood film treatments of his novels.
            As an art-crime story, Hollywood Hills introduces us to a shady Hollywood art dealer (who eventually has his head blown off). The dealer has become a link between two different crimes. One is the doings of a young ex-con caretaker at the home of a “B-list director.” The art dealer, nearly bankrupt, sells art to the director’s heiress wife, and he persuades the ex-con caretaker to steal two valuable paintings and replace them with exact photo prints.
            At the same moment, however, two other petty crooks arrive. They are a loser and his girlfriend, both addicted to drugs. To support their habit, they decide to mimic what the newspapers are calling “bling ring” thefts from wealthy homes. On their first exploit up in Hollywood hills, they steal the van in which the ex-con caretaker had put the stolen paintings.
            As “Hollywood Nate” gradually figures out what is happening, the drug user has a final show-down with the art dealer during a painting-ransom exchange. Those two do not end well. However, the girl goes home to her Oregon family and into rehab; and the ex-con (who wanted to go straight as a cook-butler) happily escape any charges.
            Terry Mort’s The Monet Murders, a first person detective narrative, takes us back to 1934, the same era in which Nathaniel West wrote. We follow PI “to the stars” Fitzhugh after he’s hired by a married woman whose artist boyfriend-on-the-side has taken her Monet painting (and put a fake copy in its place). A day or so later, the woman shoots the artist and then (apparently) herself. We learn at the end, however, that her B-movie director husband was trying to get the painting to pay his gambling debts; at his behest, the mob killed her, apparently, and then will kill him once he’s paid up.
            Meanwhile, Fitzhugh meets UCLA art history professor Dennis Finch-Hayden. Their dialogue treats us to lengthy discussions on art forgery and art crime. “I’m best known for my work on the French Impressionists,” Finch-Hayden says. “As a sideline, I’ve often helped place artwork with private buyers.”
            Asks Fitzhugh: “Ever placed a piece of stolen art?”
            The art historian replies, “Not knowingly . . . [No] one knows the whereabouts of every piece of an important artist’s work.” It seems, in fact, that the art professor ends up with the real painting (the novel’s outcome is a bit opaque), since he comes to a movie-opening party in a new Rolls Royce that cost exactly what the stolen Monet would have brought on the black market. As an artist himself, he, too, may have just copied the authentic Monet and returned the forgery as a substitute. As Finch-Hayden says, “It is a wicked world, I’m afraid. You have no idea of the passion of a true collector.”

Monday, April 11, 2016

Murder Novels about Cézanne Focus on a Mysterious Mistress (no. 40)

 by Larry Witham


SO YOU WANT to write a novel about Paul Cézanne, the French Postimpressionist painter. Three elements will suffice: the tale of Cézanne’s secret girlfriend, a murder, and a painting of the girl. The splendid backdrop of Provenance, the painter’s native region in the south of France, will also be a great plus.
            These are the precise elements employed in two recent novels with Cézanne as the centerpiece. In 2009, art historian Barbara Corrado Pope gave us Cézanne’s Quarry: A Mystery. Then in 2015 we have M. L. Longworth’s The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne.
            Cézanne’s life has its knowns and unknowns. One mostly-accepted belief is that he had a girlfriend on the side while in a common-law “marriage” to Hortense, with whom he had a son (and later a formal marriage).
            Other Cézanne scholars don’t see the great painter as being particularly shy or loyal with women, noting that he frequented brothels. Whatever the truth of Cézanne’s libido, these two novels present a story of his innocent love of someone besides Hortense. This object of affection was also a model for Cézanne, so naturally a painting of her is central to the plot.
            In Cézanne Quarry, art historian Pope ties her story to the famous mountain—Mont Sainte-Victoire—and quarries that Cezanne painted. It is the era in which the geology of Charles Lyell and the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin are in the headlines. A British geologist, Charles Westbury, arrives to study Provenance’s rock formations. Westbury gives public talks down at the quarry. He’s also cohabiting with a mistress, Solange Vernet, a girl of mysterious background.
            One day Solange is found dead in the quarry. For the local straight-arrow cop, detective Bernard Martin, there are two suspects: Westbury and Cézanne. The painter, you see, uses Solange as a model. Of course, we will find out in the end that neither of them killed her. But the prospects lend to a lively red-herring across the novel.
            Solange hangs a Cézanne painting of herself in the home she shares with Westbury, which spurs some jealousy. However, Westbury and Cézanne are at odds over more than the girl.
            As a geologist, Westbury values Mont Sainte-Victoir as fodder for scientific theory. Cézanne extolls it as an artistic vision. More than a few arguments arose between the geologist and the painter, and it was these heated sessions—according to witnesses—that have us thinking one of them has committed the crime of passion.
            As the maid in the Westbury household tells detective Martin, Solange called the two arguing men “fools”: “I remember the last words she said before she ran to her room and locked the door. ‘Only two men could fight over a mountain.’”
            Westbury will, in the end, show the greater devotion to Solange. Detective Martin finds out that the real killer is the new police inspector, Albert Frank, who actually is a former criminal who’d once had Solange (calling her a “whore”). At the quarry, Westbury resists his arrest by the corrupt Frank. The Englishman, swearing to avenge Solange, is shot dead, but not before gunning down Frank.
            The story ends on this philosophical note: “Somewhere near the foot of the mountain, Cézanne was rolling up his canvas and tying his easel to a donkey, oblivious to the fact that he had won.  He, not Westbury, would be left to conquer the mountain.”
            This all took place in 1885, when art historians believe Cézanne had an affair just before formal marriage to Hortense. Thus, Longworth also plots her modern-day Mystery of the Lost Cézanne around a search to solve the 1885 mystery.
            The scene is the city of Aix in the region of Provenance. The members of a cigar club learn that one of their members, Rene, has found a Cézanne painting—a portrait of a girl—in the building where the painter used to live (since Aix retains many of its old buildings).
            The next day Rene is found dead. Oddly, a beautiful black American woman, a PhD art history expert on Cézanne from Yale, is found standing over the dead body. Her name is Rebecca Shultz. The list of suspects has begun.
            In all of Longworth’s novels, set in Provenance with a side focus on French cuisine, two sleuths solve the crimes: a widowed judge named Verlaque and his mid-thirties girlfriend Marine Bonnet, a law professor. In this murder case, the killer will not be the Yale professor after all, but rather thuggish art thieves from America who had once worked for Rebecca’s wealthy parents.
            As an African-American orphan, Rebecca had been adopted by a Jewish art-collecting couple in New York. They had amassed Cézanne paintings, giving Rebecca a lifelong familiarity with the painter (and thus her PhD on Cézanne). However, Rebecca feels that her academic peers resent her privileged wealth, so to prove her merit, she’s in France to make an academic breakthrough. She wants to identify the girl with whom Cézanne had his mysterious affair in 1885.
            Fortunately, the painting Rene found in a ceiling panel is exactly that girl. Before long, the Aix legal eagles and Rebecca figure out the model was a young woman who worked at a bakery Cézanne patronized. Sadly, this young woman died the year after Cézanne met her. Sadder still because this is Cézanne’s only painting of a woman with a happy face and bright clothing.
            And it was pure, Verlaque concludes: “Cezanne was interested in ideas; perhaps this woman shared those. Perhaps that was enough to base a relationship on; that’s all there was.” A refreshing case of French prudery, it seems.
            The murder plot is more of a stretch. Back in New York, a gang of art thieves, who specialized in warehouse theft, had stolen works from the Shultz estate in the past. They caught word of Rene’s discovery (by coincidence, hearing Rene’s excitement through the wall!), and set up an elaborate ruse. On their thuggish visit to Rene, he was killed accidently during a scuffle.
            We are relieved, of course, that Rebecca is not the culprit (a novel-long suspect). She will also prove herself to academia. And if that is not enough, she will quickly adopt the non-prudish French manner of love. Young Rebecca, who looks like a fashion model, ends up jumping in bed with Verlaque’s still-married father (a man in his sixties or seventies!) up in swinging Paris, where she thinks she’ll stay awhile.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Australia’s Prize-Winning Carey Pens a ‘Love Story’ on Art Forgery (no. 39)

 by Larry Witham


IN THESE POSTMODERN times, so-called, a novel about art forgery and theft must have more than one layer. It must have some distorting mirrors thrown into the plot, forcing the reader to ask, “What is real and what is unreal?”
            Before the arrival of “postmodern” literature, a forgery-and-theft story usually had a straight-line shot. For instance, a likable crook outsmarts the establishment and gets away with the painting. Or, as an alternative, a likeable inspector tenaciously tracks down the crook. Either will do, just so long as there’s a nice, surprising twist in the end.
            The approach is quite different in the highly-praised caper novel Theft: A Love Story (2006), by Australian author Peter Carey. The novel creates a world of illusion about a painting’s worth. The story is also narrated by two voices, that of two brothers. One of them is mentally unreliable, a kind of idiot savant (whose broken speech is impressionistic, not linear).
            Within this creative, layered approach, Carey (a two-time Booker Award winner) has packaged a story about a forged and stolen painting.
            Reviewers have noted that a key line in Theft is: “How do you know how much to pay if you don’t know what it’s worth?” In postmodern terms, the translation is: Since anything is worth only what people say it’s worth, then a fake work of art can be worth as much as the real thing. (As we’ve been told, “postmodern” means that subjective judgments create human reality).
            So, on to the postmodern plot.
            In Theft, Australian artist Michael “Butcher” Boone gets mixed up with a young, beautiful, and professional art crook. She is Marlene Leibovitz, who is married to the son of the late famous painter Jacques Leibovitz. Having worked in the dark side of the art world, Marlene knows that once forgeries are authenticated, they essentially become “authentic.” After that they demand the price of a masterpiece.
            By contrast, the big, lumbering Boone is a practicing artist who struggles with painting as it really is. If it’s not good, he believes, it won’t sell. He knows this from experience. He was once a famous artist in Australia until he lost his touch. After that, his divorced him and took his wealth.
            Author Carey gingerly contrasts the two outlook held by Marlene and Boone as they nevertheless fall for each other, producing the “love story.” As the feme fatal, Marlene capitalizes on his naivety and need for praise to pull off a few theft-and-forgery schemes she has in the making. And through it all, Boone does love her (though in the end he leaves her).
            Marlene appears on Boone’s doorstep one rainy night. As it happens, a valuable painting in a neighbor’s upscale home was stolen at about the same time. Later, the local detective questions both Boone and Marlene.
            Unbeknownst to anyone, Marlene has a history. To Boone, she claims to be an American. However, as a teenager in her native Australia, she was a delinquent, nay, an arsonist (she burned down a local school). As an adult, she has married Olivier Leibovitz, which is her entre to the world of famous artists and the art market. By the time she shows up at Boone’s house, she has left Olivier, who in his wealthy has become a Manhattan drug addict who loves and hates her.
            We learn eventually that Marlene stole the neighbor’s painting. It was a painting said to be done by Olivier’s father (her father-in-law), and it had sold at auction for millions. However, it was really an unfinished painting, a kind of fake, touched up much later by Leibovitz’s last wife.
            Therefore, who can say whether it is an authentic Leibovitz? The answer: Marlene has that legal power. Married into the Leibovitz family, she inherited the power of “droit moral,” giving her legal standing to say whether any painting that Leibovitz left behind is authentic or not. Under this cover, she has marketed forgeries, one of which is the painting she stole from the house next to Boone. The painting was about to be expert-tested for a second sale, and Marlene would lose money when it was declared a fake. So she made it disappear.
            After Boone falls in love with Marlene, she persuades him and his mentally slow brother, Hugh, to go to New York with her. Hugh is always telling the other half of the story, portrayed as Boone’s “damaged, 220-pound, brother.” In New York, Marlene—slight, blonde, and manipulative—persuades Boone to fake a Leibovitz painting that she can authenticate and sell.
            Unfortunately, in that same city her estranged husband Olivier is ready to blow the whistle on her. Hugh, a kind but mentally-off observer, watches these intrigues and ends up with a misunderstanding. From Marlene, he gets the impression that Olivier is making her sad, having “caused Marlene to weep, deep in the middle of the night, a human lost in outer space or inside a plastic bag, gulping for air, their GOOD NAME vacuumed from them.”
            So Hugh kills Olivier, apparently by accident. (Think of the novel Of Mice and Men, in which big and slow Lennie Small wants to quiet the girl, but suffocates her).
            Whether or not Marlene knew that Hugh would kill Olivier, removing him as a threat, Boone concludes that she probably had used his brother for her dirty deed. In no time, Boone packs up. He and Hugh head back to their glum life in rural Australia. No longer a wealthy artists, Boone returns to mowing lawns for a living.
            But love of a postmodern sort prevails in the end.
            Marlene has continued to take the art market by storm, and not only with her control of the Jacques Leiboviz legacy. She persuades a Japanese collector to purchase some of Boone’s once-out-of-fashion paintings. The rest of the art market takes notice. This resurrects his career, raising the value of anything bearing his name. These maneuvers are Marlene’s love letter to Boone, even if he still feels ultimately burned by her wicked ways.
            The final twist arrives: Marlene persuades a prominent gallery in Germany to buy two Boone paintings. As the artist, he is invited to visit, and in the same gallery show he sees the painting he’d forged back in New York, a supposed work by Jacques Leibovitz.
            Marlene has obviously been busy since the split up. Boone’s last words are the ones he’d said a few times already in the novel: “After all, how can you know how much to pay when you have no bloody idea what it’s worth?”

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Rise of the ‘Art Mystery’ Novel (no. 38)

 by Larry Witham


BEFORE KEN FOLLETT rose to fame as an author of international thrillers, he wrote an art caper. He has described it as a “lighthearted crime story.” It was titled The Modigliani Scandal (1976) and it suggests that the seventies was a kind of curtain-raiser for mystery writers putting art and artists into their plots.
            The tradition goes back further in time, of course. Although Edgar Allen Poe—inventor of the detective and mystery genre—never employed the art topic, there were others in his century (Hawthorne, Melville, and James) who used portrait paintings as a pivot for psychological mysteries: The portraits forebode an ill fate for the characters.
            After writing my own “art mystery,” I researched the history of novels in which artists and art are central. Of the nearly two hundred that I have found, the greatest number falls into the literary or historical fiction category.
            Even so, the so-called art mystery has its venerable place. It has had two spurts in the twentieth century, beginning in the 1930s with the golden age of British detective fiction. The “queens of crime”—Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham—all produced at least once plot that involved artists and paintings as clues, victims, or culprits, with Marsh having the record (since she had studied painting in art school).
            Then in the 1970s the art caper truly blossoms. Though not exactly a mystery, the 1972 novel The Eiger Sanction introduced the protagonist Dr. Jonathan Hemlock, an art history professor. He also moonlighted as an assassin to earn money to buy stolen paintings. This was the satirical creation of the American writer Trevanian (Rodney Whitaker), who was spoofing the James Bond genre. Still, it was taken seriously and became a best-seller. The second Hemlock adventure, The Loo Sanction (1973), was equally satirical and goes even further in portraying the zany contemporary art world.
            If Trevanian and Follett got the ball rolling in the 1970s, there are several other reasons why art mysteries began to take off. One is our increased knowledge about Nazi looting of art during WWII and the return of that art to victims. What better mystery than tracking down a masterpiece stashed in a salt mine by Hitler’s minions? Today, novels with the Nazi looting element are legion.
            Another energizing factor was the boom in “contemporary art,” which is dated to the seventies (as a splinter off of “modern art”). Contemporary art is flamboyant and 1960’s-rebellious. It introduced concept art, performance art, feminist art, video art, and mixed these with the new music, urban, and drug culture. And the flamboyance was just the start.
            Contemporary art began to sell for astronomical amounts of money at auctions. (All the “old masters” art was already bought up around the world). This stunning rise in value led to a surge in art crime: forgery of modern art, theft, and art-market manipulation. What a goldmine for crime fiction! The result has been ever-new variations on the forgery and theft theme, usually with a murder opening the story.
            Then came the real-life serial killers. They reached newspaper headlines and soon became a favorite topic for novelists. Why not an artist as a serial killer? Only a deranged painter, for example, could leave clues in the form of corpses posed like famous works of art.
            Art forgery, of course, is not really new. It goes back to the Renaissance. The same goes with art theft. Looting paintings was a specialty of Napoleon well before Hitler. For today’s novelists, however, a much more recent round of historical cases has offered good material for plots and technical descriptions.
            More than a few novelists have drawn on the story of the Dutch artist who developed chemical techniques to forge Vermeer paintings that fooled the Nazis. We also have the struggling British painter who, in the 1980s, forged countless modern works. Since the 1970s, moreover, antiquity smuggling had prospered. Dramatic thefts hit European museums. And in 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was robbed of several old masters, which are still missing.
            In the wake of these trends, the Italians formed the world’s first “art squad.” Other countries followed, and now have a new breed of detective, the so-called “art cop.” These new art sleuths, and many of the real cases, have now been morphed into novels.
            Detectives are virtually absent from historical fiction about art, as illustrated by a genre of blockbusters ranging from Irving Stone’s life of Van Gogh (Lust for Life, 1934) to Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel about Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring. There are exceptions, though. In one recent novel, the painter Cezanne is a suspect when his model is killed. Leonardo da Vinci has also been embroiled in a detective plot.
            Through the 1990s, publishers and authors began to catch on. Since then, they have produced several “series” of art mysteries that feature a recurring, likable sleuth. Series novels have been published as “art historical,” “artworld,” “art lover’s,” “bodies of art,” and “art gallery” mysteries. Another half dozen go simply by the protagonist’s name: See the Chris Norgren, Joanna Stark, Tim Simpson, and Fred Taylor art mysteries, to name a few. They’re all art experts who solve crimes.
            The challenge of every mystery novel is to avoid clichés, those cookie-cutter plots in which only the names and locations are changed. The clever use of art crime has become another tool to create something new, both in plot and atmosphere. Some novelists specialize in this. Others use it once and move on. And we do see some clichés emerging, as expected.
            Nevertheless, if reviews of art mysteries at Amazon and Goodreads are any indication, many readers have little knowledge of the art world, and thus find that part of the novel the most revelatory. If that remains true, the art mystery genre will have a future.
            (This blog was first posted at