Iain Pears, Death and
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 (stopyourekillingme.com). 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.