Iain Pears, The
Copyright © 1982 Iain Pears
Berkeley Prime Crime
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
Posthumous Bust of Pope Pius V | The Art Institute of Chicago (artic.edu)
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 (metmuseum.org)
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.