Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Favorite Read: LOOT by Aaron Elkins

I've lost track of how many times I've read this book. I took it with me to Las Vegas many years ago, to a BOUCHERCON Convention so that Aaron Elkins himself could sign it for me. He wrote: "To Yvette, May the good guys always win..." It was a fun moment for me and I think, for him, when I told him how much I loved the book and how I liked to reread it. He told me that THAT was the ultimate compliment for a writer - when someone chose to reread his work. He appeared very pleased.

Almost all of Aaron Elkins' books are on my shelves, mostly mysteries featuring forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver, the so-called Skeleton Detective. It's a terrific series of books and, of course, I've read them all and recommend them highly. Elkins has a second series featuring Chris Norgren, an art historian/museum curator as hero - books I like very much - but unfortunately he stopped writing them years ago. That series consists of only a few books. But they are well worth looking for.

LOOT, is a stand-alone - much as I wish it were otherwise - published in 1999, it is my favorite of all of Aaron Elkins' considerable body of work. It's an art-related mystery/thriller but the hero is Ben Revere, an ex-curator who stumbles upon an incredible find: a lost Velazquez painting in a junk-filled Boston pawnshop. When murder enters the picture, Ben's quiet life is turned upside down as he decides to get at the truth behind the mystery and the sudden reappearance of a masterpiece. His search will take him to Europe and into the darker, murkier corners of the art world as he, ill-equipped for mayhem - but reluctantly dealing with it as best he can -searches for the illusive answers. All the while he is being stalked by bad guys who may or may not be the zealous fringes of some left-over Nazi strain.

As Ben gets more deeply involved, we learn of the Velazquez's odyssey from salt-mine Nazi stash at the end of WWII, to it's eventual, intriguing landing in Boston. When the war in Europe was pretty much over, paintings and other art looted by the Nazis became mired in a kind of mad free-for-all. The Allies, thankfully, found the caves where much of the art had been stored and brought in experts and the like to figure things out, but some of the artwork slipped through the cracks in the scattered security network - masterpieces were lost and never seen again. Until one of them turns up in a seedy American pawnshop fifty years later.

(NOTE: Read more about this - the real-life looting of art treasures in WWII - here. A fascinating non-fiction book and documentary that explains what went on during this time is THE RAPE OF EUROPA The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn H. Nicolas. Read about it here.)

Okay, so far LOOT sounds like a straightforward tale of intrigue featuring a professorial type on the hunt for the truth about a painting and a killer - sounds esoteric enough. Plus we get to visit a few countries in Europe and learn a bit about art and the nefarious way (based on fact) that Hitler and his minions dealt with their insatiable appetite for, mostly, Renaissance art. We also get some hair-raising escapades and wicked plot-twists along the way - all very well and good. But it's in the way that author Aaron Elkins goes about the writing of all this that turns LOOT into something so much more.

For instance, check out this bit of description once Ben lands in Europe and begins, in his art quest, to have to deal with assorted human odds and ends:

Zykmund Dulska, the art dealer who wanted only to do the right thing, brought to mind a spiteful bullfrog. He was one of those uncomfortably swollen people who seem to have too much blood in their bodies, a spongy, fat-faced man with goggling eyes that wouldn't stop jumping around. At the door he greeted us effusively in English, the only language all four of us understood, and bowed us toward a table on which coffee, tea, and enough fruit, bread and rolls to feed the Chicago Bulls had been meticulously arranged on linen so white it hurt to look at it. His Czech accent - or, as Sergeant Cox might point out, what I took to be a Czech accent - was heavy, his voice a liquorish gargle that didn't go with all the fluttering.

Or this, later, when, in Russia waiting for a flight to Budapest, Ben runs into a friend named Yuri.

"So how was your meeting with the Dragon Lady?" he asked, pumping my hand up and down.

"Not too bad, except that she wouldn't tell me anything. Listen, Yuri, I haven't gotten you in a lot of trouble over this, have I?"

"No, only a little, don't worry."

Now, this doesn't come close to reconstructing our actual conversation, you understand; I've had to take some liberties. Remember, we were communicating in four languages at the same time: German, of which I knew a lot and he knew little; French, of which I knew a little and he knew a lot, Russian, of which he knew a lot and I knew next to nothing; and English, of which he knew next to nothing and I knew a lot. So our dialogue, while its gist was as indicated, wasn't a bit like the model of concision and linearity described above. To spare both of us - you and me - the pain and the laughter of a literal transcription, I'm honing it into something along the lines of comprehensible speech. Anyway, to appreciate the real thing, you'd have had to have been there.

I don't know about you, but this makes me laugh. I love words and wording that make me laugh. When I read this kind of thing, I instantly fall under an author's spell. I'm easy that way.

Later, when Ben lands in Hungary and goes to his hotel, Elkins writes as dry, wry and witty a description of Budapest and the Hungarian character and language as I've ever read. (Though I suppose if you're Hungarian, you might not find it so funny.) I mean, I've never been there, but reading this, makes me feel as if I'd already been and gone.

The Hungarian language is not related to any of the Romance languages, or to the Germanic, the Slavic, the Italic, or any other member of the Indo-European language family. It is (so Alois Feuchtmuller had told me) a member of the Uralic family, subfamily Finno-Ugric, branch Ugric, formal denomination Magyar. Its closest - almost its only - relatives are Ostyak and Vogul, which are still spoken in a few parts of Siberia. As a result, Hungarians have only each other to talk to. Save for the occasional visiting scholar of Finno-Ugric, foreigners who arrive in Budapest can rarely speak more than a few phrases of phrase-book Hungarian. By the same token, Hungarian vacationers who want to be understood on their foreign travels are pretty much limited to the general vicinity of Irkutsk.

It's Alois's theory that this has made them grumpy in their dealings with visitors, over and above the expectable general grumpiness of Eastern Europeans only now emerging from a grim and repressive political system.

...The Hotel Duna wasn't doing anything for my mood either. The minute I walked into the place, I knew that I was in one of the old State Tourist Authority hotels of the Eastern bloc - I'd been in them before, in Prague and East Berlin - now probably privatized but otherwise unchanged in atmosphere and appearance. If you've ever been in one of these places, you know what I mean. The building itself was typical Brezhnev-era style (otherwise fondly known as Neo-Brutal), a drab, cubical hulk with a facade of cement-colored cement. The lobby areas were shabby and neglected, with linoleum floors that smelled of disinfectant, and packed - even at midnight - with frazzled-looking tour groups huddled in clumps, waiting for - well, I'm not sure what they were waiting for. The night staff was overbearing, disgruntled, and pointedly slow. And the air was full of sinister, unanswered questions. Who was the bald man in the black suit who leaned against the counter sucking on a toothpick amd writing something in a notebook every time somebody got on the elevator? What were the cashier and the security guard sniping at each other about under their breath? Why was the chambermaid crying behind the laundry cart?

I LOVE this stuff. While reading the whole Hungarian chapter, I had a big smile on my face and sometimes laughed outright. Elkins can be darkly wicked when he wants to be. But as much as I loved these sections of the book, I also loved meeting the Holocaust survivors Ben runs into on his quest. Aaron Elkins knows how to write, simply and effectively, about honor and triumph of the spirit. And all about the undaunted Big Dog courage of a certain little daschund.

Well, you can tell I loved everything about this book and I hope I've conveyed my enthusiasm to you - enough at least so you'll give LOOT a look-see.
Neo-Brutal. HA!

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