Sunday, April 4, 2021

Iain Pears, Death and Restoration

 Iain Pears, Death and Restoration
Copyright © 1996 Iain Pears
Berkley Prime Crime Books (reprint)

I’ve been re-reading, and in some cases reading for the first time, Iain Pears’ series of art world mysteries, of which there are, regrettably, only seven (Iain Pears (  I have, I think, only two more to read:  The Last Judgment and The Immaculate Deception.  There are three principal characters:  Jonathon Argyll, an art historian and occasional dealer; Flavia Di Stefano, an officer in Rome’s art crimes division; and Taddeo Bottano, the head of the art squad.  Bottano has only a fleeting role in this story, as he is involved in the possible creation of a continent-wide art theft bureau (Di Stefano is the acting head of the Rome operation).

This is, I think, the longest of these art mysteries, and perhaps the best. 

Early one morning, one of the priests of the monastery San Giovanni has been assaulted and a 15th century icon has vanished.  Di Stefano, in place of Bottano, has to deal with it.  And, as old icons are a hot item on the art market (licit and illicit), this icon could have great monetary value.  It already has great religious significance to many of the people in the area, who view the icon (of St. Teresa and the baby Jesus) as the protector of their part of Rome.

And, recently arrived from England, is Mary Verney, whom Argyll and Di Stefano encountered in an earlier adventure set in the English countryside (Giotto’s Hand).  Verny has something of a checkered past, and her presence in Rome poses some issues for Di Stefano.  I I must not overlook the organized crime family from Greece, the Charanis clan.  Argyll has given up his “career” as a dealer and has become an academic, teaching art history to a class of less than enthusiastic students.  And he and Di Stefano have too little time together.  And I should not overlook the art scholar and restoration guy, Dan Menzies, who is restoring some works at San Giovanni, and becomes enmeshed with the theft and recovery of the icon/

Early on, an art dealer (whose business ethics might be all they should be) is murdered.  Verney’s granddaughter has been kidnapped, and she is being coerced into stealing the icon from San Giovanni.  The monastery faces a financial (and spiritual) crisis.  Di Stefano feels over-worked and perhaps in over her head.  Argyll takes on the task of tracing (with the assistance of an elderly monk whose mental state is unsteady) the history of the icon.  Rome itself is a character, focusing mostly—not exclusively--on the neighborhood around the monastery.  [I have spent some time in Rome, mostly not in the lower income parts of the city; it is my favorite city, and, if I spoke Italian—and had a somewhat larger income (the cost of living in Rome is, well, maybe less than New York, but not by much), I think we’d be living there.)

I love the characters, and I love the setting,  And Pears’ ability to weave contemporary Rome with the collapse of the Constantinople is a key element of what happened in the 15th century and what has just happened. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Walter Mosley, Blood Grove

Walter Mosley, Blood Grove
Copyright © 2021 The Thing Itself, Inc.
Mulholland Books/Little, Brown and Company

Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins is, in 1969, a success, running his own investigations firm (with a handful of employees), driving in a Rolls Royce (not his but collateral for payment), and with a teenage step-daughter.  As it happens, everyone else in the agency is out of the office when Craig Killian, a veteran of the war in Viet Nam and suffering the after-effects of his time there, comes in, to ask for Rawlins’ help.  He’s afraid that he may have killed a man in a blood orange grove and he needs to know.  Rawlins, who had served in World War II, in the ETO, and who knows what traumas can linger, takes the case.

Rawlins narrates the events, from what might be years after the events.  And it is a complicated story.  In addition to this investigation, he’s responsible for his adopted teenage daughter Feather, and has to cope with her (early 20s uncle Milo showing up).  And that’s not the end of the complications, which include the LAPD (which does not come off well—and, from everything I have read about the LAPD in the 1960s and later, is deserved).

And “complicated” is perhaps an understatement.  The cast of characters is large and varied, and Mosley handles it well.  The investigation itself—which turns out to involve an armored-car heist (and, it seems, the murder of the guards) of something around a half a million dollars (about $4 million, these days, adjusted for inflation).  His client dies, but he feels an obligation to continue the investigation.  He is threatened by a…well, I guess psychotic mob boss is perhaps the best description, for one thing.  And even finding a thread to begin his investigation seems all but impossible.

Maybe not a masterpiece, but a book I found hard to put down, and people who will, for good or evil, remain in my memory.  This pretty well sums things up:  “Every now and then I think that the closest I ever came to death was at the hands of that woman.  She was a nearly perfect predator in a world that scared the shit out of me.” 

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Rex Stout, Too Many Women (not for the first time)

 Rex Stout, Too Many Women
© 1947 Estate of Rex Stout
ASIN : B004SOQ0A8Some

Rex Stout is without question my favorite writer of mysteries; I have read all of the novels and novellas multiple times, and, with few exceptions, find re-reading them a pleasurable experience.  Some months ago I began a chronological re-reading of the novels, and have reached, and read, the 8th novel in the series, Too Many Women.  The basic plot is perfectly acceptable.  But I always find the treatment of many of the characters difficult at best for a modern audience; I would not be surprised if it was also difficult for many readers on its initial publication (in 1947

An employee (Waldo Moore) of a civil engineering company (Naylor- Kerr, Inc.) has been killed (nearly four months prior to Wolfe’s becoming involved.  Wolfe is hired by the firm’s president, Jasper Pine, to investigate an allegation that Moore was murdered, not simply killed in a hit-and-rum auto accident, because rumors that it was murder are rampant and are disrupting the corporation.(Left unsaid is the implication that his murder, if such it was, is somehow related to his employment.)  In order to pursue the investigation, Archie Goodwin is “hired,” as a personnel expert, to look into the corporation’s excessive turnover rate, especially among the clerical workforce.  According to Pine, Moore’s presence—he seems to be extremely attractive to the women in the place (although Archie’s description of him does not help the reader understand why that should be the case.  He is there using an alias (Peter Truett).

Archie seems inordinately struck by the physical attractiveness of the clerical staff (especially three of them, Rosa Bendini, Gwen Ferris, and Hester Livsey (who had been engaged to marry Moore).  And he also learns fairly quickly that Moore was disliked by many of the professional staff and considered redundant by his supervisor.  He also has to cope with Mr. Kerr Naylor (the son of one of the firm’s founders and named for the other—and the source of the murder allegation) and Jasper Pine’s wife Cecily (sister of Kerr Naylor).  In fact, much of his investigation seems to consist of dining and dancing with two of the women (Bendini and Ferris).

And the investigation seems to be getting nowhere, until Kerr Naylor tells Archie, in circumstances that preclude his following it up, that, in addition to knowing that Moore was murdered, he knows who the murderer is.  An additional complication is that Cecily Pine is (as she is referred to in the book) a “chronic befriender” of young men, and that Moore, after his stint as a befriendee has ended, gets hired by the firm.  She has, as we learn, a motive for this.  Things heat up when there is a second death, obviously murder, and in a fashion that makes it clear that Moore’s death was emphatically not an accident. 

The conclusion is not exactly surprising, and “justice,” of a sort, prevails.  It is, however, an instance of it being extremely unlikely that anyone could be convicted of the murders, given what we know and the police would be able to prove. 

So why do I find the book so difficult?  From the first time I read it—in the early 1970s (this was not an easy book to find, even in libraries, then, and it has remained hard to find since)…Well.  Let me put it this way:  Archie’s attitude toward and behavior with the three women at Naylor-Kerr with whom Archie becomes involved is barely short of deplorable.  He presents them to us basically as sex objects, beings in whom he can only be interested because they arouse him sexually.  And he treats them, essentially, that way, and none of them seem to mind.  As a result, this is the book I have read least often of any of them (although there is another one…but I’ll get to that in a couple of months).  In my opinion—and a lot of people do disagree with me—the one glaring weakness in Stout’s writing is his attitude toward the women in his books.  And this is the book in which that attitude is most clearly on display.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Marbury v. Madison and Stuart V Laird


Cliff Sloan and David McKean, The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall, and the Battle for the Supreme Court
Copyright © Cliff Sloan and David McKean 2019
Public Affairs/Perseus Books
ISBN 9-781-586-4842-262

I have finished The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall, and the Battle for the Supreme Court, which focuses on the lead-up to the decision by the Supreme Court in the case of Marbury v. Madison (the Madison in question was James Madison) and its aftermath. Theauthors case is this (at least as I read it):

Congress enacts laws. The presumption is that those laws are both Constitutional and good policy.

The President either signs into law or vetoes legislation passed by Congress. The presumption is that legislation signed into law is both Constitutional and good policy. If the President vetoes legislation passed be Congress, the President is asserting that the legislation is EITHER un-Constitutional, OR bad policy, or both. The veto message should make clear which.

Congress may vote to override the veto (which requires a supermajority), which is telling the President, again, that the legislation is both Constitutional and good policy. And it becomes law.

Note that, at least formally, Congress has the ultimate power.

There is nothing in the Constitution explicitly assigning any regarding the legitimacy of laws—constitutional? unconstitutional?)--role to the Supreme Court.

But, in what was in reality a very minor legal issue--Marbury v. Madison, the Court concluded that a law governing appointments to executive branch offices violated the Constitution and the law was therefore void. (The case involved appointments of four men to the position of justices of the peace.

(Just to be clear, this is my understanding of what I have read so far.  As I reach the end, I have to retract much of that comment on the power of the Court of that.  What the Court did was make explicit that the laws of the United States apply to the president as much as they do to the rest of us.  It's still the case tha Marbury v. Madison was a relatively minor matter.)

Now I first knew anything about Marbury v. Madison was probably in U.S. history in high school. But the underlying issue as never actually mentioned, nor was the controversy over the Constitutional action of the Court.

This sort of stuff keeps me awake at night.

The book, by the way, takes its time getting around to the legal issues. More than the first half of the book is introducing the characters and providing background. (Which gets us to p. 103 of 191, at which point the Court has rendered its decision.)  So what is the background, and what can we conclude about a Supreme Court decision that has, for over 200 years, been seen as one of the defining moments in U.S, Constitutional jurisprudence and history?

This is, actually, the story of two cases, Marbury v. Madison and Stuart v. Laird.

At issue in Marbury v. Madison was the question of whether, and to what extent, the President is bound by the law.  The background, briefly, is this.  John Adams has been defeated for re-election (in 1800), and Thomas Jefferson is to be inaugurate on 4 March 1801.  This leaves a fairly large gap between the election and the transfer of presidential authority to the incoming President.  Adams took advantage of this time lag to appoint scores of people to positions which it was the president’s responsibility to fill.  The making of these appointments continued until lite in the night of 3 March.  Among the appointments were a number of appointments to the position of justice of the peace.  One of those appointees was William Marbury (the other three men who were to receive appointments somehow have had their names dropped from history).  There were, essentially four steps to the appointment:  The president makes the appointment; the appointment is confirmed by the Senate; the president signs the appointment and affixes the Great Seal of the United States; and the letter of appointment (signed and sealed) is delivered to the appointee.  Adams completed the first three of these steps.  James Madison (as Secretary oi State, and acting on Jefferson’s instructions) did not deliver the appointment.  Marbury filed an action (a writ of mandamus) with the Supreme Court to compel the delivery.  The case was finally argued and a decision rendered more than two years later.

(A writ of mandamus is a court order requiring that a specific action be taken—in this case, the delivery of Marbury’s appointment,)

The second case, also argued and decided in1803, Stuart v. Laird, arose from the controversy surrounding the enactment in 1801 and the repeal in 1803 of the Judiciary Act of 1801.  (A good enough discussion is here: Stuart v. Laird - Wikipedia).  Briefly, the Act created a number of new judgeships (which Adams filled as promptly as he could before Jefferson was inaugurated) and allowed the Justices of the Supreme Court to cease “circuit riding.”  When, in 1803, Congress repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801, it abolished those juddgeships and required tha the Justices resume circuit riding (which they all loathed, unsurprisingly).  Stuart, who had been appointed to one of the new positions, filed suit asking that the repeal be set aside, because federal judgeships conferred lifetime appointments, that repealing the act and allowing the cancellation of the judgeships unconstitutionally deprived the newly-appointed judges of positions to which they had been lawfully appointed.

So, what happened?

In Marbury v. Madison, the Court agreed that the letter of appointment was illegally withheld (i.e., that the President of the United States was subject to the laws of the United States) but that Marbury had erred by bringing an action directly to the Supreme Court rather than to the Federal district court which would have jurisdiction.  Simply, the Court dismissed Marbury’s action—and it was, apparently, never refined in a federal district court.  But Marshall, in his decision made it quite clear that the president had violated the law, that the law was constitutional, and, had Marbury’s case been brought as an appeal from a district court, the Supreme Court would have sided with him.  The Court did not directly a constitutional issue, but made it clear that the president is as much a subject under the law as anyone.

In short, the president is not above the law.  And, as a side issue, the Supreme Court indicated that (despite there being no explicit language in the Constitution saying so) that the Curt was an equal partner (with the Congress and the President) in determining what is and is not constitutional.

In Stuart v. Laird, the Court ruled that, as the Constitution gave Congress the power to create judicial positions (including, as had already happed, changing the number of Justices on the Supreme Court, as stated in Article III, Section 1:

The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

(Interestingly, the Constitution does not explicitly say the appointments are lifetime; that is an inference from there being no fixed term of service stated.)

What the Court made clear was that, if Congress could create judgeships, it could also eliminate = them.  And, if the judgeship was eliminated, there was no explicit or implicit grant of continued employment for judges whose positions might be eliminated—no judgeship, no right to a position (or salary).  Again, but implicitly, the Court was claiming the right ti interpret the Constitution, and, in fact, that its interpretation was binding on the other two branches.  (Also, by making clear the authority of Congress both to create and to eliminate judgeships, it also made clear that Congress, which had eliminated circuit-riding in the 1801 Actt could, and did, in repealing the act, reinstate circuit-riding as a part of the Justices’ job.

I think the authors were right in linking these two cases.  By addressing these issues pretty much simultaneously, the Court made a fairly expansive assertion of authority, an authority that has not been challenged seriously since.

Iain Pears, The Titian Committee

 Iain Pears, The Titian Committee
copytivht © 1991 Iain Pears
Berkeley Prime Crime
ISBN 0-425-18544-1

{n their second outing*, General Taddeo Bottando, his assistant Flavia di Stefano, and Jonthan Argyll (currently employed by an art gallery, but maybe not for long) become embroiled in murder and the complexities of dealing with old masters.  Bottando does not really care that much about the murder and still less about the people involved; he is concerned about his department’s budget, and continued existence.  In this instance, diStefano is sent to Venice to help investigate the murder of Louise Masterson, Ph.D., an art historian and member of the titular Titian committee.  (The committee has six members—well, five now.  It was established by an eminent Italian art historian, Georges Bralle (who retired because of disagreements about how the committee should operate).  The remaining members, art historians all, are Roberts. Kollmar, Van Heteren, Miller, and Lorenzo.

Masterson was murdered in the Gardenetti Reali, a public garden, around midnight.  The first question, of course, is whether the murderer had a personal motive or was a thief for whom things got out of hand.  (This being a mystery novel, we all know how that will play out.  And, given that the motive was personal, and suspicion is likely to fall on the members of the Titian Committee, which of them might have had a motive sufficient to lead to murder.  The initial investigation, conducted by a Venetian policeman, Bovolo (who only really wants  the whole thing to go away), reaches the easy (and quick and safe) conclusion that it was a theft gone wrong.  But, it was, of course, not that easy.

Meanwhile, and more or less by chance, Argyll is in Venice trying to pry a batch of paintings away from the Marchesa du Mulino, to be sent to London and sold at auction.  And the negotiations are not going well.  He runs into di Stefano** at a restaurant, and they wind up working together on her murder and his attempt to sell so he can keep his job.

Nothing, of course, comes easily.  It seems that Masterson had irritated all of the other members of the Titian Committee (but to the point of murder), that one of the members of the committee that another member badly needhas been engaged in somewhat unethical attributions of paintings references to support his application for tenure, that yet a third member (the nephew of the Marchesa, who really wants to get his hands on her paintings); and still another is deeply in love with Masterson, who has been paying to little attention to him.

And, in the midst of all this, Argyll thinks he has found, in a small, rundown church, an actual Titian.  More?  General Bottando shows up in Venice to help things along.  And more people die. 

I must admit to having had some difficulty keeping all the actors clear in my mind, and that the final explication of the who and how and why of things was also a very tangled tale.  So tangled that di Stefano’s explanation left both Bottando and Argyll confused, that Bottando’s clarificaion left both di Stefano and Argyll confused, and that Argyll’s revelations about his findings about his Titian, the Marchesa’s collection, and his commentary on the explanations of the other two leave them confused.  (As an aside, I love Italy—at least the parts I have visited, and this book did not make me particularly eager to travel to Venice.)  Having said that, I will say, again, that this is a marvelous series with characters I enjoy spending time with; my chief regret is that there are only seven books.


*The Raphael Affair (set in Rome) was the first, and I have already reported on #3, The Bernini Bust (set in LA).

**They met in The Rafael Affair and have remained close.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Iain Pears, The Bernini Bust

 Iain Pears, The Bernini Bust
Copyright © 1982 Iain Pears
Berkeley Prime Crime
ISBN 978-0-425-19187-7

The second entry in Iain Pears’ series of art mysteries (featuring Flavia diSetfano and General Botttano (of the Italian art crimes squad) and Jonathan Argyll (scholar and, for now, an employee o a high-end art gallery).  This outing includes Argyll’s sale of a Titian painting (for $2 million; his share of the commission would keep him happily in Rome for a couple of years); a portrait bust of Pope Pius VI (by, of course, Bernini), and a museum founded and funded by an American billionaire (Arthur Moresby, whose name, of course, is on the museum).  And murders.

When reading the book, I wondered whether any such portrait bust existed.  The answer, I have to report, is that it is unlikely that any such bust ever existed.  I can find no mention of any such bust.  And, that Bernini would ever have created such a bust is highly unlikely.  Bernini was born in 1598 and died in 1680.  There were no popes named Pius during his lifetime (and I suspect that the demand for portrait busts of dead popes was not very great.  Pius III (1439-1503 was pope for one month in 1503.  Pius IV lived 1499-1565, and was pope 1559-1565.  Pius IV, 1509-1572; pope, 1566-1572.  The next Pope Pius (VI) was not born until 1717.  But how many readers will know, or be moved to discover, this?  (But Argyll, at least, should have known.)  Images of portrait buses of Pius V may be found here:
Posthumous Bust of Pope Pius V | The Art Institute of Chicago (
And here:
Mario Cartaro | Bust portrait of Pope Pius V in profile facing left set within an elaborate architectural structure upon which sit allegorical figures including Faith, Charity and Religion above and Justice and Prudence below who flank St Michael | The Metropolitan Museum of Art (

As the tale begins, Argyll is waiting to turn over to the museum’s director Samuel Thanet the Titian painting.  Hector di Souza is delivering the (alleged) Bernini bust to Thanet, and the museum staff (and patrons) are preparing for a reception at which Arthur Moresby, billionaire and founder/funder of the museum will make a speech,  A large number of people, including Moresby’s 5th five and his only son, will be in attendance.  But the reception is a flop and plans for a major expansion of the museum put on hold—Arthur Moresby has been murdered.

The investigation falls to an LAPD detective, Morelli.  Argyll suffers a broken leg in an automobile crash that may or may not have been an accident.  And deStefano, who has been cranky of late,  is assigned an investigation some (related? Or not?) shenanigans in Italy, is dispatched to LA to assist in recovering what might be artworks (specifically, di Souza’s Bernini bust) that have been smuggled out of Italy.  And di Sousa has, as it turns out, also been murdered.

The portrait that Pears gives us in southern California is fairly acid, and the encounters Argyll and deStefano have with the police and assorted suspects are wicked.  In fact, for most of the book, the investigations take a back seat to the description of the environment and its inhabitants.  Pears takes some justified shots at the origins and operations of what can fairly be called a vanity museum (with come collateral comments about the Getty, the Frick, and others.  And, I will admit, I had to pay very close attention to keeping track of the comings and goings of the principal actors. 

The weakest bit in the book is, in my opinion, deStefano’s explanation (assisted by Argyll) of the how and why the murders were committed.  And the ending of the tale, which involves deStafano and Argyll travelling back to Italy, to meet with an old marble carver (who has worked on cathedrals for most of his lifetime), to bring him news of his old friend di Sousa from he has become estranged, is bittersweet and touching. 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

17 December 2020

 Heavy dark grey clouds,
Last night’s snow slowly melting.
My mood fits right in.

17 December 2020