A lawyer investigates the vandalization of an early Picasso.
Philip Melanchthon is a Washington lawyer assigned an unlikely task by Mr. X, an eccentric but wealthy client who owns a priceless early work by cubist master Pablo Picasso. When an anonymous Frenchman mails X a picture of Picasso with the same work, X realizes that it had been altered before he purchased it. X’s version focuses solely on an androgynous figure, while the painting in the photograph also includes an intensely realistic portrait of a woman with a distorted tear characteristic of Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica. The portrait is obviously of a Parisian equestrienne, Andree, whose obituary the Frenchman includes in the package. Melanchthon and his associate, Paul, begin to investigate the heist, prompted by clues from the Frenchman. It’s no easy task, as they move from the art world to the literary world, scouring both the biographies and narratives of Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov for references. The mystery slowly unfurls, and as it does, Melanchthon and Paul garner a new respect for the power of art. The story is subtle and smart, and Blackpeat’s command of language is strong; he effectively weaves together seminal 20th-century aesthetic pieces to create a coherent narrative. Unfortunately, the novel suffers from inaction. Melanchthon and Paul conduct most of their research from an antiseptic law office, relying more on Google, Nexis and e-mail than anything dynamic. While this may be realistic, it’s not the stuff of gripping fiction. At only 127 pages, though, there’s plenty of room for the supplemental narrative and character development it needs.
A strong skeleton that could become an engaging cerebral mystery.