Art and Intrigue: Caravaggio’s Angel by Ruth Brandon (with a diversion to Cornwall))

March 22, 2009 at 5:02 pm (Art, Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

angel Regina “Reggie” Lee, a curator at London’s National Gallery, is trying to put together an exhibit featuring several paintings by Caravaggio. A task that should have been relatively straightforward becomes anything but when two of the four lenders suddenly go back on their promise to provide works for the exhibition. What is going on? Reggie is determined to find out.

Her investigation takes her deep into the French countryside. Reggie has an affinity for the paysage; one of her grandmothers was French. The reader will be similarly enraptured by author’s  deliciously evocative descriptions of the region. I was reminded of a DVD I watched recently which showcased the attractions of the Dordogne, with its ancient, still-preserved villages and medieval strongholds perched at cliff’s edge.  And a river runs through it!

dordogne_2

Chateau de Beynac

Chateau de Beynac

I wanted to pack my bags and go there at once, preferably with Reggie Lee as my guide.

I found Reggie quite appealing. A brainy woman passionate about art, she’s also passionate about – well, passion. As the novel opens, she has just been left by a lover she still longs for. Later, in the course of her investigations, she has an ill-advised one night stand with a journalist whose wife she considers a friend. She even finds herself attracted to the steely, sinister Jean-Jacques Rigaut. Luckily, she has no opportunity to act on that (potentially very dangerous) feeling.

My one reservation concerning Caravaggio’s Angels is that  by the time I was halfway through the novel,  the plot lines had become so tangled that I was having some trouble figuring out exactly what was happening and why. We fans of crime fiction have all experienced this phenomenon, and often more than once. Sometimes we throw up our hands in despair; other times, interesting characters and a great setting are sufficient compensation. For me, with this novel,the latter was the case. I stayed with it and was glad that I did.

The angel on the book’s cover is a detail from St. Matthew and the Angel. Here is the painting in its entirety:

st-matthew-angel

One cannot help but be fascinated by Caravaggio, with his supreme talent and his turbulent, occasionally violent life (and inevitable premature death). It is not surprising that novelists make use of this mother lode of dramatic material. One of my favorite examples of this paradigm occurs in The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers. On this post you’ll find images of two of Caravaggio’s works: The Supper at Emmaus and The Taking of Christ. The latter is the subject of  one of my favorite nonfiction titles of recent years, The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr:

The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio

The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio

Click on the Wikipedia entry for this masterpiece and read the first section, entitled “Description.” Then click to enlarge and look to the extreme right of the image. Be prepared for chills…

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Caravaggio’s Angels comes to us courtesy of Soho Constable, a new imprint  launched a little over a year ago by one of my favorite publishers, Soho Press. Peter Lovesey’s terrific contemporary novels featuring Peter Diamond and also, of late, Henrietta “Hen” Mallin have long been published by Soho. While scrolling down the Soho Constable Frontlist, I noted with pleasure the inclusion of this fine writer’s excellent Sergeant Cribb historical series as well. And then, I exclaimed with delight! Why? Because I had spotted, just below the Lovesey titles, slated for an August 2009 release, this book:

etchells3

So why am I so excited?  In 2005, this mystery by Olive Etchells arrived in the library:

etchells1

The following year brought this sequel:

etchells2

What was so special about these two novels? The characters were fascinating, the writing was excellent, as were the plots  – and the Cornwall setting was utterly captivating. Meanwhile, 2006 came and went, then 2007… Nothing further was heard from, or about, Olive Etchells. So yes, I could not be more pleased that at last, the third DCI Channon procedural is on its way to us.

2 Comments

  1. nicolehawkesford said,

    But Roberta, when are you going to finally visit Cornwall? If you think Yorkshire’s beautiful, just wait until you see Cornwall in all its rugged glory….beats Yorkshire hands down. Granted I happen to live there, so I’m a bit biased….
    I have just finished catching up on your blog (yes, over the last month I have read all two year’s worth of entries!) and have subsequently added several books to my reading list following your reviews!

  2. Best books of 2009: my own favorites « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Taylor About Face by Donna Leon August Heat by Andrea Camilleri The Price of Malice by Archer Mayor Caravaggio’s Angel by Ruth Brandon The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar The Private Patient by P.D. James Blackout […]

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