The revelation of a defaced painting at the 1787 Salon at the Louvre leads to murder.
Anne Cartier and her deaf friend Michou watch in horror as the portrait of the Comte de Serre’s late wife Virginie is unveiled with a skull painted in place of its subject’s head. The artist, Joseph Hamel, accuses one of his rivals, Albert Bouchard, who is soon found murdered. The discoverer of his corpse suddenly comes into money but has little chance to enjoy it when he is found drowned in the Seine. Anne has helped her husband Colonel Paul de Saint-Martin, provost of the Royal Highway Patrol, in other cases (Black Gold, 2001), and soon she and Michou are acting as his spies among the servants. A visit to the Count’s chateau enables them to discover that his wife’s riding accident was actually murder. Among the suspects are the Count; his bastard son Pierre Fauve, a pimp, spy and extortionist; the Italian art dealer Domenico Moretti, in love with Virginie even though she may have killed his nephew; the painter Hamel; and diverse disaffected peasants and members of the Fauve family. Not until endless rounds of interviewing and spying and a hunt though the sewers of Paris will all be revealed.
Overlong and overcomplicated debut. Despite some mildly interesting historical background, most readers will greet the final curtain with relief.