A novel about stolen paintings and forgeries by a student of art crime.
Two paintings—one an altarpiece by Caravaggio, the other a canvas by the Russian Suprematist Kasimir Malevich—go missing, and an eclectic team of detectives and art historians must find them in Charney’s debut. A Cambridge-trained scholar and the founding director of a consulting group on art-crime prevention, Charney is a pioneer in the use of art history to solve art mysteries. He is not, however, a natural storyteller or a gifted writer. The plot is an unwieldy, exasperating mess. There are too many principle characters for any of them to be fully developed, and the ostensibly comic characters—including a fat French inspector who is constantly eating or getting himself wedged into tight spots—are simply embarrassing. The author’s self-conscious attempts to gussy up this flaccid thriller are painfully heavy-handed. There is a surfeit of ugly, unilluminating metaphors—Charney often chooses two or three when one would have been enough. The smattering of French dialogue spoken by his Gallic characters is arbitrary and off-putting, serving to underscore the novel’s general pretentiousness. The book will no doubt earn comparisons to The Da Vinci Code, and such comparisons will be apt, up to a point. Like Dan Brown, Charney presents superficial windbaggery as up-market erudition. But Brown’s hero is a made-up scholar in a fictional field, while Charney is a real-life practitioner and—according to his press materials—genuine innovator in the world in which his novel is set.
A pseudo-intellectual mystery: If this is the best story Charney can build from his experiences, he is advised to keep his day job.