One of the truly bleak British noir-meisters (Count Me Out, 1997, etc.) is up to his nasty old tricks again in this tale of duplicity, betrayal, and murder. And a complex tale it is, moving back and forth in time and involving lowlifes from a variety of social classes. James starts in contemporary London with the hedonistic Keene sisters, Sidonie and Naomi, both rich, beautiful, talented, and morally ambiguous, to say the least. Sidonie, the surviving sister, is 85. Naomi has been dead for 15 years, but now her paintings have skyrocketed in value, and an unprincipled art dealer, the aptly named Hugo Gottfleisch, suddenly smells opportunity. Practiced exploiter that he is, he intuits that Sidonie is hiding a cache of her sister's paintings and can be "persuaded" to give them up. He's particularly interested in portraits Naomi did of the Nazi inner circle she so ardently admired—Hitler ("fundamentally a decent man"), Göring, and Himmler—hot items to certain clandestine special-interest groups. But feisty, ferocious Sidonie is anything but an easy mark. Thus the battle is joined as the corrupt art dealer and the wicked old lady go one on one, making their subtly vicious moves on a shaky chess board. And woe betide the pawns that get in their way.
There turn out to be quite a few pawns, though, and an awful lot of woe. James can undoubtedly write, but who wants to give that much time to so unmitigated a cast of cutthroats?