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THE DEATH ARTIST by Jonathan Santlofer


by Jonathan Santlofer

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-06-000441-X
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

An inconsistently written first outing about a killer who stalks the denizens of Manhattan’s art scene.

When Kate McKinnon Rothstein realizes that several recent and grisly murders have been staged to evoke classic paintings, it’s clear that author Santlofer, himself an artist, has conjured up a vivid twist for yet another thriller about serial killings. But when Kate Rothstein takes up the case—she’s a retired NYPD officer now turned to art criticism—the story becomes a mostly routine policer, with savvy Kate deducing so swiftly that there’s little complication to the proceedings. The fatal stabbing of Kate’s 20-something adopted daughter Elena is what draws Kate out of retirement, and her son Willie, a promising artist also in his 20s, is one of several art-world suspects. Then, when classical art collector William Mason Pruitt is found dead in his bathtub, stabbed, his arm draped over the side, a dry cleaning bill in his hand—voilà!, it’s Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat as tableau mort. In scenes that Santlofer renders with a keen eye for unsettling detail, another artist is vivisected, a dealer beheaded. Meanwhile, the killer, who, of course, wants to be caught, assembles collages to send to future victims, the pictures containing clues about time and place of the upcoming crimes. When Kate and the NYPD realize that their psychopath is picking off members of New York City’s art scene, the fear is that, as an art critic, Kate may be next—and, combing Pruitt’s apartment for clues, Kate picks up a cufflink belonging to her husband. As critics, dealers, and collectors gather in Venice for an exhibit depicting corpses and dismembered animals, Santlofer makes it clear that contemporary art and real life have merged.

On balance, the formulaic structure, hit-and-miss satire, and facile plot turns keep this one from ever quite delivering what its unsettling theme promises.