PABLO FANDANGO by James  Kelly


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Three young would-be art forgers get in over their heads in this debut crime novel.

In 1990 Toronto, 20-year-old art student Marty Ronan is roommates with Howie Harrington, a transplanted British DJ who lives off the wealth of his investment banker father. The two men, along with Marty’s shady childhood friend Matt Babcock, throw illegal parties and make a decent amount of cash doing it. Then, one morning, a hungover Marty reads about the astronomical price tag of a Van Gogh painting in the New York Times and comes up with an idea: What if he and his friends forged a stolen painting and sold it on the black market? “It’s as much about choosing the right pigeon as it is about producing a passable forgery,” Marty explains to the others. “We don’t explain how we got it. We don’t have to. We present it as a stolen work of art to a dealer or collector willing to buy it anyway.” While scanning recent issues of a magazine dedicated to art thefts, Marty comes across the perfect piece to fake—a large-scale pastel drawing by Pablo Picasso that was stolen 16 years earlier and has yet to resurface. Through Howie, they find a suitable mark in a New York City investment banker who seems like he might be willing to purchase a hot artwork. Things get complicated, however, when Marty and Matt reconnect with Hamilton, Ontario–based gangsters. Marty’s father had previous run numbers for a man named Frank Piccolo, and Matt’s father, one of Frank’s enforcers, was murdered when Matt was only 15. But Matt and Marty will have to learn to keep old emotions at bay in order to pull off a $2.4 million deal.

Kelly’s prose is full of detail and personality, and he keenly captures the attitude of his slacker criminal mastermind Marty. For example, as the artist begins his forgery, he narrates, “There was a lot I didn’t know...but if I waited until I felt I knew everything I knew I’d never start. And besides, if I couldn’t hack the pastels it wouldn’t matter if I knew everything there was to know or not.” That said, Marty and his friends often feel more like characters in a heist-movie screenplay than criminals that one might read about in the pages of a newspaper—they spend their days watching Martin Scorsese movies and their nights playing with guns and beautiful women. However, their milieu is specific and unusual enough to hold the reader’s interest. The author sometimes seems to get a bit too distracted by the minutiae of his settings—as when he spends a paragraph explaining exactly which streets the entrances to a college library face. Still, he manages to summon the environs of greater Toronto in a memorable manner. Nothing about this novel is terribly realistic, but it should satisfy readers for whom a clever criminal enterprise is just as impressive as a Picasso pastel.

An often entertaining caper that mixes high art and low criminality.

Page count: 295pp
Publisher: Manuscript
Program: Kirkus Indie
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