Saturday, April 17, 2021

Dolores Gordon-Smith, As If By Magic

 Dolores Gordon-Smith, As If By Magic
Copyright © 2009
Constable & Robinson Ltd.

The 3rd of (so far) 10 mysteries featuring Jack Haldean, who, following his service in the Great War, is making a (surprisingly good) living as a writer.  He becomes involved in actual mysteries, working with his friend Chief Detective Inspector Bill Rackham.  In this case, George Lassiter, whom Haldean met during the War, is the catalyst for his involvement.

Lassiter has come to England to find out what has happened to a legacy he should have received—but appears to have been stolen.  Broke, suffering from malnutrition and recurrent bouts of malaria and shell-shock, he breaks into a home after watching the servants leave to see a play.  And he falls asleep/passes out in the warmth of the kitchen.  He awakens, but, hearing voiced, he hides until he can leave without being discovered.  As he prepares to leave, he sees a young woman on the floor of the kitchen—apparently dead.  As he hurries out of the house, he encounters the police, tries to convince them that there’s a death in the house.  But there is no body.

And, instead of arresting him, he winds up in the hospital, suffering from malnutrition and malaria and (so they thing) hallucinations.  He is released into the custody of Haldean until he has recovered sufficiently to be on his own.

The home he invaded is, as it turns out, owned by his grandfather and occupied by the old man, two of his sons, and the widow of a third son.  The family is involved in the nascent airplane business, and is in the process of building a large plane capable of long distance fights (the project is building up to a flight (not non-stop) to India,  Also involved in the business—indeed, its chief executive, is Alexander Culverton, who has disappeared—until reappearing as a corpse in the Thames.  Rackham is on the case (which he thinks might be linked to a series of “Jack the Ripper” slayings of young women, also found in the Thames.

Rackham makes little progress.  And much of the narrative revolves around preparations for the test flight of the airplane (aeroplane?), including a lavish dinner and test flight for the press.  As Rackham deals with both the “Ripper” killings and Culverton’s death, Haldean’s role is to keep George out of trouble, while trying to do his own writing.  He is, unsurprisingly, swept into the investigations.

The story moves briskly enough, but I found myself less interested than I had expected to be.  The theft of George’s legacy is resolved, and in a not very startling coincidence, ties into the machinations over control of the airplane business.  A lengthy “adventure” sequence that ties a number of things up seemed to me to be unnecessary, and, essentially, an excuse for the inclusion of some not very interesting sex scenes.  And hypnotism plays a significant role in the denouement.  More than anything else, reading As If By Magic reminded me why I had not picked it up before (I have also read, some years ago, the first two books in the series). 

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.