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

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Iain Pears, The Raphael Affair

 Iain Pears, The Raphael Affair
Copyright © 1990 Iain Pears
Berkeley Prime Crime/Penguin-Putnam
     (paperback reprint)
ISBN:  0-425-16613-9

Iain Pears wrote one of the most convoluted, engrossing, maddening (and several other adjectives) I have ever read—An Instance of the Fingerpost.  I don’t even want to try to explain the title (which may be the easiest part of the book, actually).  It has 4 (first-person) narrators, all of them unreliable.  Here, however, we have a fairly straightforward third-person narrative which deals with the rather convoluted (and, in his series of mysteries, nefarious) world of fine art.  There are three main characters:  General Taddeo Bottando, head of the police organization devoted to dealing with art world frauds (and other crimes); Flavia di Stefano, one of his associated; and Jonathan Argyll, an art historian in the process of finishing his dissertation,.  I enjoy all three of t hem; they are delights.  (This is the first of 7 mysteries in which they appear, published between 1991 and 2000. All of the books are, unsurprisingly, art history mysteries, involving the work of other transcendent painters from the15th and 16th centuries.)

The story begins with the discovery of what might be a previously unknown painting by Raphael (Raphael - Wikipedia; 1482-1520; images of his paintings: raphael - Google Search), of a “portrait of Elisabetta da Laguna, about 1505.  Oil on canvas, sixty-eight centimeters by one-hundred and thirty eight.”  It is sold at auction for 63 million pounds (roughly $150 million at the time).  The painting had been over-painted—assuming it’s an authentic Rafael—centuries before.  The buyer is a state museum in Rome.  And, at a reception attended by the rich and famous, art dealers, and assorted others—the painting, about to be unveiled for the first time since the auction, is apparently destroyed (or was it destroyed? in an apparently accidental fire caused by an electrical fuse shorting out (or was it accidental?) 

The story unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace (for a 200 page book), which fine.  We get to know the main characters and we get to spend a lot of time in Roam (and, eventually, Sienna).  Of course, nothing happens easily, and one of the conservators at the museum is murdered.  The suspects in all of this range from the owner of a successful art auction house in London to members of the museum staff, and involve present and past art forgers and thieves.  The resolution occurs in Siena, one of the beautiful hill towns in Tuscany (where there is an annual horse race in the main square of the city—which does not figure in the story, but which is worth mentioning [Palio di Siena - Wikipedia]). 

I thought I had read all the books in this series, but upon reading (not, as it turns out, re-reading it), I found the entire thing new.  The three main characters are delightful, and I’m looking forward to the others.  If there’s a weakness, it comes in the denouement, when General Bottando explains to everyone what has happened (including generous acknowledgement of the efforts of Flavia and Jonathan).  The problem is that we neither saw nor heard of Bottando’s part of the investigation, so it’s not really a fair-play mystery.  It’s still a very good book, well set and well told, with characters well worth revisiting.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Rex Stout, And Be A Villain

 Rex Stout, And Be A Villain
Copyright © 1948 Rex Stout
Bantam Crime Line reprint
ISBN 0-553-23931-7

I have been re-reading Rex Stout’s And Be a Villain, and I have found myself concluding that the case Wolfe makes against the putative murderer is one of the weakest in the series of Nero Wolfe mysteries.  It is impossible to deal with this without exposing much of the plot, and especially the denouement, so you are warned:  HERE BE SPOILERS.

And Be a Villain has, as a significant plot device, a blackmail scheme, which works as follows:  The criminal mastermind sets stooges up as the writer/provider of one or another weekly newsletter.  The two we actually learn of are Track Almanac (Cyril Orchard), which provides tips for horse racing bettors, and What is Happening (Beulah Poole), political commentary.  These sell for $10 per week (that would be around $120 per week, adjusted to today’s general level of prices).  The mastermind’s other minions begin a smear campaign (e.g., accusing a prominent physician with numerous and repeated improprieties with his female patients), and offer to put an end to these accusations in exchange for a 0ne-year subscription to the newsletter.  And the one-year limit is strictly adhered to (although the victims don’t know with certainty that it will be adhered to).  So a total tab of $520 ($6240, adjusted to today’s prices).  As Wolfe points out, this is, for someone with a large income, a mere inconvenience.

Almost inevitably (it seems), one of the newsletter authors—Cyril Orchard—is murdered (cyanide poisoning in the soft drink bottle), poisoned while appearing as a guest on a nationally syndicated radio program hosted by Madeline Fraser. At first, the police—and Wolfe—assume that the poison was intended for .Frazier, because of the details of a specific on-air advertising gimmick involving a soft drink.  But when Poole is also murdered (shot), and Wolfe deduces the blackmail operation, we have to conclude that the poisoned soft drink was in fact intended for Orchard.  And that reduces the potential murderer suspects to the people at the table and involved in passing the soft drinks around during the commercial spot.  And, of the people at the table, the only one with a reputation to be defended and an income large enough to find the blackmail amount a mere annoyance is Fraser.  But what blackmailable secret could she have? She’s from a small town in Michigan, and has been a public figure for several years.  There is one thing—her husband, Lawrence Koppel (the brother of Fraser’s close friend and business manager, Deborah Koppel) committed suicide—apparently.  He was a photographer in a small town, and apparently not a very successful one, apparently prone to bouts of depression.  Given the timeline, it appears that he w\could easily have chosen to commit suicide in the depths of the Great Depression.  So he would have had access to cyanide; he was apparently depressed; and he left a letter, with his best friend, expressing his intention to commit suicide.

And how do you get a blackmail hook from this?  A letter sent to at least one of the people who worked with Fraser, which said that she was lucky that the handwriting on Koppel’s suicide letter had not been examined by an expert.  (This would seem to have involved somewhat more than a casual knowledge of the blackmail victim’s life.   But perhaps I am being picky.)  The letter was still in the possession of his best friend (after around 15 years, and there’s no mention of other examples of his handwriting for comparison—which is a significant oversight in the narrative), and, when retrieved and analyzed, the experts “called it [the letter] one of the cleverest forgeries they had ever seen.”  Frankly, if I were a prosecuting attorney, I would not want to go into court with my primary piece of actual evidence being, according to my experts, an extremely clever forgery.  Just imagine what a good defense attorney (say, Perry Mason) could have done with that.  Even given the death of Debby Koppel (also cyanide poisoning) and the discovery of a cache of cyanide in one of Fraser’s slippers—pretty sloppy work there, if you ask me—it’s pretty hard to see a strong case.  Even if the verdict of the jury was Guilty.  For me, this is one of the least satisfying, least convincing of the Wolfe novels.


Thursday, December 3, 2020

William Manchester, A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval World and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age

 William Manchester, A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval World and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age 
Copyright © 1992, 1993 William Manchester
Little, Brown and Company (paperback reprint)
ISBN  0-316-54556-2

William Manchester was not an historian of the period (roughly, 500 A.D. to 1520 A.D.) or the  place (Europe); he is, by training and interest, an historian of the 20th century, and, mostly, of America (William Manchester - Wikipedia).  He was, obviously, very much interested in this particular time period, and (at least for me, as an interested reader) he has written a mostly engaging book.

The book comes in three parts.  The first is a brief (28 pages) summary of what a late medieval community looked like.  He perhaps over-generalizes, but this does set the scene well.  The core of the book (190 pages) is the splintering of Christianity (with emphasis on the corruption of Rome and the role of Martin Luther in).  He does this very well, and I found this section to be of great interest.  He is also more sympathetic to Henry VIII than many historians

The final section (75 pages) deals with Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage which ultimately provided irrefutable evidence that this planet is a sphere.  His description of the voyage is riveting. But in the end of this third part that things fall apart.  The final few pages are a paean to Magellan that seems more than a bit over the top.  Magellan’s voyage was a remarkable achievement (which he did not live to see concluded), but the voyage itself seems to me to have been inevitable.  And the part of the voyage that, for Magellan, ended in his death while attempting to coerce the inhabitants of what we know as the Philippians, seems to be seen, by Manchester as a tribute to Magellan’s beliefs.  Whereas I see it as an amazingly maladroit act of hubris.  But the demonstration that our planet was one of many planets moving was, as Manchester concludes, the final end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the “modern” age.