St. Martin’s Press © 1986
Available as an ebook from Speaking Volumes 2011
I generally like mysteries set in and around the art world quite a lot. I am a big fan of Aaron Elkins’ Chris Nordgren books [A Deceptive Clarity (1987); A Glancing Light (1991), and Old Scored (1993)] and have always wished there were more of them. I also am very fond of the Alix London books, co-written by Charlotte Elkins and Aaron Elkins [A Dangerous Talent (2013); A Cruise to Die For (2013); The Art Whisperer (2014); and The Trouble With Mirrors (2016)). My favorites, though, are the 7 books by Iain Pears, featuring Jonathan Argyll (an American art scholar) and Flavia di Stefano and General Bottando, of the Art Theft Squad in Rome [The Raphael Affair (1991); The Titian Committee (1992); The Bernini Bust (1993); The Last Judgment (1994); Giotto’s Hand (1995); Death and Restoration (1996); and The Immaculate Deception (2000)}.
So when I discovered that Marcia Muller had written a three-book series, set in and around San Francisco [The Cavalier In White (1866); There Hangs the Knife (1988); and Dark Star (1989)], well, I had to acquire them I’ve just finished the first book in the series, and thought that it was a decent, but not great, book. The set-up is good. Joanna Stark, who walked away from a museum security firm three years earlier when her husband dies, is at loose ends in Sonoma, when her former partner (Nick Alexander) shows up, to persuade her to come back to assist in the recovery of a painting by Frans Hals (The Cavalier In White, an invented painting; if you want to get some idea what Hals’ work is like, here’s where to look). She is reluctant, but agrees. Working with Nick is Steve Rafferty, representing the insurance company, which would rather not have to shell out for the missing painting. Rafferty & Stark very quickly seem have a mutual attraction.
She quickly, but with little reason, comes to think that the theft might have been engineered by an old nemesis of hers, Antony Parducci (formerly an art thief, more recently an arranger of art thefts). And someone, it turns out, has been asking art dealers in SF if they know of an art dealer with an adopted son n his 20s. There is one, who has loaned furniture to the museum, some of which is in the same room n which the Hals had been hung.
The SF setting is well done, and, as the museum involved (the De Young) is a real museum, that part of the setting is really interesting (especially if you have been there). The investigation does not lead anywhere very quickly (except to an obviously missing security guard), and (for my taste) Stark’s personal issues take up a little too much of the book. Although they mostly turn out to be relevant. Again, to my taste, the ending is a bit pat, both in terms of whose actions initiated the theft and in how the mystery is resolved. The ending does clearly set us up for a sequel (or more). I was not bowled over, but I’m more than willing to see where Muller takes us next.