Fantasy author Ford (The Beyond, 2001, etc.) turns to a historical setting for this near-miss thriller set in little old New York.
An excellent year, 1893, for portraitist Piero Piambo, at least in terms of commissions. Almost without realizing it, he's become a leading painter of plutocratic society. This achievement has its downside, however. “Create, Piero,” his teacher/mentor had always enjoined. “Create something beautiful or life is meaningless.” But Piero is torn. He enjoys his well-appointed studio, his lovely mistress, his standing in the community, all the delectable fruits of his labor. No labor, no fruits: a bleak cause-and-effect he thoroughly understands. At this point an almost magical opportunity presents itself, a chance to both eat and have his cake. Mega-rich (and very weird) Mrs. Charbruque promises him enough money so that he'll never have to paint another society portrait . . . provided he can paint hers successfully. She tells him this while seated behind an impenetrable screen—a position from which, he learns in the next few minutes, she intends not to stir. Bewildered by the bizarre proposition and irritated by what he regards as its arrogance, Piero nevertheless finds the challenge irresistible. He speedily decides to accept and then very soon wishes he'd given it more thought. There are mysteries attached to his unseen subject (invisible for all he knows) even deeper than at first imagined. What, for instance, is her connection to a series of vicious murders that have begun to terrorize the city? How to explain the sudden appearance of a demented, violent husband she claimed was dead? Difficulties and complexities abound, but Piero surmounts them and in the end completes a portrait that in its own way rivals Dorian Gray's.
Chillingly surreal with occasional lapses into downright silliness, but by and large Ford keeps the pages turning.