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

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