Thursday, February 25, 2016

Fiction Review: The Art Thief

In January, my neighborhood book group discussed The Art Thief by Noah Charney. I wasn’t thrilled with this choice since I know nothing at all about art, but I ended up enjoying this complex mystery set in the European art world.

In each of the novel’s opening chapters, different art thefts occur from three different locations in Paris, Rome, and London. The story moves back and forth between these different stories, each peopled with different characters. First, in a small Roman church, a Caravaggio altarpiece, Annunciation, goes missing in the middle of the night, leaving a distraught priest and confused authorities without a clue to its disappearance. Gabriel Coffin, an art expert who works for an insurance company, is brought in to consult on the case.

Annunciation by Caravaggio
Meanwhile, in Paris, Genevieve Delacloche, a woman working for the Malevich Society, tries to explain to a representative of Christie’s in London that the Malevich shown in their catalog for an upcoming auction, Suprematist Composition White on White, must be a fake because the original painting is sitting there in the building in Paris. However, when she gets off the phone with him and goes down to the basement to look at the painting, she finds that it is missing from their archives.  Inspector Jean-Jacques Bizot and his dining companion, Jean-Paul Lesgourges, an art expert, investigate the missing painting.

Over to London, a few days later, the Malevich in question is indeed auctioned off to the National Gallery of Modern Art for 6.3 million pounds. Delacloche is present and notices some unusual things about the painting and others at the sale, as well as some of the buyers. Twenty-four hours later, the painting is stolen from the museum, outsmarting its high-tech security system. Inspector Harry Wickenden of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. Although he knows little about art – he says he can rely on experts for that – he is a good detective who has never failed to either recover the stolen artwork or catch the thief or both.
White on White by Malevich

As the novel progresses, these three thefts are investigated by three different sets of authorities in three different countries. The world of art experts is a small one, though, and there is some crossover between the cases, as some of the same experts are called in to consult on multiple cases. There is also Professor Barrow, an art history professor in London, who provides some art background to the reader as he lectures his students, as well as a bit of comic relief, and plays a small unwitting role in the cases.

If all of those different characters and investigations sound confusing, it is sometimes. That’s also one of the good things about this novel – all of the complex threads are woven together into an intriguing mystery (or more accurately, mysteries). Along the way, the reader learns a lot about art and art crimes.

I enjoyed this novel, as did many of my book group members, though it has some flaws. There were some plot holes and inconsistencies…I think. Even after a 2-hour discussion and reading the entire book, I was still left feeling not 100% sure that I understood every nuance of the plot or exactly how the crimes had been committed. There is some humor woven into the novel – mostly through the outgoing and sometimes outrageous Professor Barrow and also through the two Jeans in Paris, who are more focused on food than on solving the crime – though sometimes the humor feels a bit heavy-handed and forced.

Overall, I just went along for the ride and enjoyed this convoluted mystery. Our group’s reactions varied from loving the novel to thinking it was just OK, with ratings (on a 10-point scale) ranging from 5 to 9, with an average of 6.2. We all agreed we learned a lot about art and art crimes, and I enjoyed looking up many of the paintings mentioned in the book on the internet to see what they actually looked like. If you enjoy mysteries, this is a good one with plenty of clues, characters, and complexities to keep you guessing.

290 pages, Atria Books (a division of Simon & Schuster)

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