A photojournalist poking around in an abandoned house discovers a room covered in mysterious wall-to-wall paintings.
Photography teacher Jason Poe, suffering from the trauma of documenting the carnage of the war in Syria, opts for a somewhat tamer enterprise back home: breaking into derelict houses in the Rust Belt and taking pictures of the possessions owners left behind when they decamped. The granite mansion on Locust Street in the little town of Calista holds particular fascination for him. When he and his student Tally Vaughan finally sneak inside, their patience is richly rewarded. In a room at the top of the building is a set of four murals, painted by a talented but obviously untrained artist, that Poe finds breathtaking. To identify the creator of this unknown masterpiece, Poe seeks help from fiber artist Hannah Sachs, his colleague at the Calista Art Institute and his sometime lover, and reporter Joan Nguyen of the Calista Times-Dispatch. Nguyen fills him in on the history of the house, which was abandoned after Elizabeth and Theodore Schechtner, a pair of psychotherapists, were accused of leading a cult that imprisoned teenage girls there. Hannah helps track down the art dealer who currently owns the house—and the murals. The mystery behind the murals’ creation, which takes several trips to Santa Fe and Switzerland to unravel, couldn’t be more predictable. Bayer (The Luzern Photograph, 2016, etc.), who presents his tale as a series of first-person narratives told by the searchers and their informants, doesn’t differentiate them enough to give each character a unique voice. But the most notable absence is of the murals themselves, which are described by a variety of encomiums but never in enough detail for readers to imagine what they’re not seeing.
A picture would have been worth a thousand words.