Sometimes, with a really good mystery, the reader has the pleasure of watching seemingly disparate threads of plot being woven into a seamless and satisfying whole. As the novel draws to a close, you have one of those “Ah-so-that’s-it!” moments that are the joy of every mystery lover’s reading experience. I am happy to report, without giving too much away (something I would never do!), that you too can enjoy this delightful sensation if you read Magdalen Nabb’s Some Bitter Taste. Nabb has been writing her Florentine police procedurals since 1981; the earliest books in the series garnered praise from no less a master than Georges Simenon! The protagonist, Marshal Guarnaccia, is immensely appealing; he empathizes strongly with the victims of crime, almost too strongly, given his line of work. This particular mystery centers on art theft – not surprising for a novel set in Florence – and involves unscrupulous schemers and manipulators as well as those who mean well but lack the courage of their convictions. This is exactly the kind of crime writing I love: literate and thought-provoking, peopled with complex and memorable characters, and distinguished by a vivid sense of place.
These same qualities distinguish In a True Light by John Harvey, another novel of crime in the art world. Several years ago, John Harvey brought his acclaimed Charlie Resnick mystery series to a close; those of us who had grown attached to the jazz-loving Charlie and his four cats named Dizzy, Miles, Pepper and Bud, wondered what Harvey would do next. He has since then started a new series featuring Frank Elder, a retired policeman living in Cornwall. In between these two series, though, he wrote this fine standalone. Sloane, a British painter in his sixties, has just been released from prison, having been convicted of forgery. This was definitely not his first career choice; he was a talented artist in his own right, capable of producing original and interesting work. But the original and interesting work, alas, did not earn him enough to pay the rent. And so, needs must…… At any rate, in his youth, Sloane had gone to New York and partaken of the heady postwar art scene whose epicenter was in Greenwich Village. He had also entered into a very intense love affair with an older woman who was also a painter, Jane Graham. She followed Sloane back to London, but there the affair cooled, and they parted amicably, with Graham going on to France – and to fame.
Anyway, no sooner is Sloane out of the slammer than he gets an urgent summons from an elderly – and very sick – Jane Graham, now living in Italy. He immediately travels to her home, aware that time is of the essence, and when he gets there, she discloses a secret that affects him like a bomb going off in the middle of his life. As a result of Jane’s revelation, Sloane returns after many years to New York on an urgent quest, one that will ultimately prove life-changing. In a True Light is filled with wonderful vignettes of artists who achieved fame during an exceptionally vibrant and tumultuous period, and that makes it great fun to read, but even more importantly, Sloane is a complex, intriguing character whose moves are hard to anticipate.
Late-breaking bulletin: John Harvey has been awarded the prestigious Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for the year 2007. This award is given in recognition of “sustained excellence in the genre of crime writing” by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain.