Monday, October 8, 2012

Art and Murder - Together Again

Actual poster issued by Senator Joseph McCarthy during The Red Scare in the 1950's.It might also have come first from Queen Victoria.

I'm crazy about art mysteries - whether the hero is an artist, a museum curator, an art collector, art historian, restorer or just some guy who wanders into an art gallery and finds a dead body.

If the mystery is well-written and set in the art world, I'll be reading it sooner rather than later. There's just something about art and murder that has always captured my fancy. (Maybe because I have an art background and have to keep from swooning when I enter a museum.)

But not everyone has heard of the art mysteries I love best, so I thought I'd list the cream of the crop and urge you to take a look. (You don't have to be an art maven like me to appreciate a good mystery no matter where it's set - right?)

1) The art historian Jonathan Argyll series by Oxford historian Iain Pears begun in 1990:

First book: THE RAPHAEL AFFAIR which introduces us to the fumbling but endearing British art historian Jonathan Argyll and his future cohorts: the gruff but genial General Bottando and his beautiful associate, Flavia di Stefano, both of the Italian National Art Theft Squad. The books mostly take place in Italy and occasionally in England. All I can say is I Love These Books! They should be read in order if possible.


2) The Fred Taylor mysteries by American art historian Nicholas Kilmer begun in 1995:

First Book: HARMONY IN FLESH AND BLACK which introduces us to Vietnam vet Fred Taylor, a hard to define kind of guy except to say he is tough, laconic and an art expert. He is the right hand man of the very eccentric, Boston high society art collector Clayton Reed. Skulduggery is a matter of course as Clayton sends Fred out into the art world to follow up his often inspired hunches. (See my review here.)


Note: The early hard covers of the first four books had simply splendid covers. While I've read the entire series, the first four books are my favorites.

3) The Chris Norgren mysteries by American writer Aaron Elkins begun in 1987:

First Book: A DECEPTIVE CLARITY which introduces us to the very likable San Francisco museum curator Chris Norgren as he heads to Berlin to help set-up The Plundered Past exhibit which will feature works of art looted by the Nazis during WWII. (See my review here.)


4) Stand-Alone: THE FORGERY OF VENUS (2008) by Michael Gruber
In which the difference between art forgery and artistic art forgery is revealed - more or less. A brilliant book which makes you think about art (and maybe murder) in an eye-opening new way. Is painter Chaz Wilmot mad? You decide.

5) Stand-Alone: LOOT (1999) by Aaron Elkins
My favorite of Elkins' stand-alones and in general one of my favorite books of all time. A re-reader's delight.

A painting - Nazi loot - thought lost forever turns up in a Boston junk shop, followed by murder and the disappearance of the painting yet again.. Ben Revere, ex-art curator begins a quest for the killers which will take him on a danger filled trip to Europe. (Read my review here.)

6) Stand-Alone: TO THE HILT (1996) by Dick Francis
My first Dick Francis book, after which I read almost all his books in a great frenzy of discovery. Artist Alexander Kinloch lives an isolated existence in the Scottish Highlands where he paints allegorical paintings of golf courses. (Hey, it all makes perfect sense to me.) When thugs turn up on his doorstep and leave him for dead, he begins an idyll involving friends, family and nasty secrets which takes him to England where he will ask questions nobody wants answered. One of my favorite parts in the book is a moment in time when Alexander describes his painting process in a very luscious way. So damn intriguing.

7) Stand-Alone: IN THE FRAME (1976) by Dick Francis
Charles Todd is a well-known English artist who specializes in paintings of horses. When Todd's cousin's house is burglarized and his wife murdered, Todd becomes a suspect and so, of course, he must track down the real killer.

"Few match Francis for dangerous flights of fancy and pure, inventive menace." Boston Herald. Couldn't have said it better myself.

8) Thanks to Les Blatt for reminding me of two of my favorite art mysteries which inexplicably slipped my mind when composing this post earlier. ARTISTS IN CRIME by Ngaio Marsh - the sixth in the Roderick Allyn series by Ngaio Marsh - a dame of the golden age.

How could I forget the book in which Scotland Yard Superintendent Allyn first meets and is smitten by artist Agatha Troy. (He will later marry her.)

9) A CLUTCH OF CONSTABLES by Ngaio Marsh - When Allyn's artist wife Troy goes on a river cruise, murder interrupts the peaceful jaunt. Thanks again Les, for the timely reminder.


Note:  I might add the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva because the hero is an art restorer - but he is also a part time Mossad agent. Though I've only read a couple of these I've always meant to read more. However, the stories in these books seem to concentrate on spying and the darker aspects of international intrigue than on any art related crimes.

First Book: THE KILL ARTIST (2000)
For the rest of the titles in the series, please use this link.

I heard that there's a book out there which features Leonardo da Vinci in a murder mystery, but I'm a little leery. Besides I can't remember the author or title.

Illustration by the legendary Brad Holland.


  1. Great recommendations, Yvette. May I add a couple of classics to your list (AAAAUUUUGGGGHHH MORE TBR!): two of Ngaio Marsh's books, "Artists in Crime" and "A Clutch of Constables" are both excellent - both lean heavily on Agatha Troy Alleyn (Mrs. Roderick, in the later book) and both are wonderful. Michael Innes has several, including "Christmas at Candleshoe," and there are a couple of Allinghams as well. So many books, so little time...

  2. The Jonathan Argyll series sounds right up my alley. Thanks for highlighting these books!

  3. To the Hilt is definitely a great, great book. Another blogger recommended it to me and I LOVED it. I haven't read In the Frame yet but I'm going to put it on my to-read list!

  4. well have to get LOOT sounds great. New Englamd weather has my shoulder hurting today. Did they ever find the art from Stewart /Gardner museum??
    What a story that is.
    Wonderful post.

  5. It's hard to choose from these, though I'd probably start with the Jonathan Argyll series. Now I'm wondering, are you going to be reading the non-fiction "Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an Art Forger," by Ken Perenyi?

  6. This is such an interesting mystery genre to read, Yvette, especially for someone who loves art!

    PS: Thanks for all your well wishes! Please keep send some positive vibes this way that we get a house buyer very soon ;)

  7. Les, I took your words to heart and added two of the books you recommended (the ones I'd read) to my list. Can't figure how I forgot them.
    Thanks. I'll have to check out the others when I have a free reading moment. :)

  8. Rick, you will love these books. I'd also take a look at LOOT by Aaron Elkins. Especially if you like wry, subtle humor and wonderful writing.

  9. Tasha, we agree! TO THE HILT is marvelous. I'm so glad it was my introduction to Dick Francis. It remains one of my all time faves.

  10. Yvonne, I don't think they ever found those stolen paintings. They're probably hanging on some fabulously wealthy art collector's wall somewhere in another part of the world.

    LOOT is for you, m'dear. Read it.

  11. Mark, I might be reading it. I'd only vaguely heard of it recently. But since you mention it, I'm adding it to my list. As Les says, "Argh!" That list is miles long.

    You must read THE ART OF FORGERY then, Mark. It's your kind of book.
    But you can't go wrong with Jonathan Argyll either. I LOVE that series!

    But you already knew that. :)

  12. Pat, if you love art and you love a good mystery, you will love these books. :)

    I'm sending all good vibes your way, m'dear. Hoping for the best on your new adventure.

  13. Great titles to add to my TBR list, Yvette - and some 'fast-tracked' to the short list. ;-) I like art and I love mysteries, so I'm really looking forward to this reading.

  14. Debbie, you won't go wrong with these books. I love art mysteries too.

  15. The Harmony in Flesh and Black cover is great, and I like the art at the bottom with the lightning bolt.

    If I read any of these books, I'd try Loot, which looks intriguing -- and on the hunt for Nazis who stole art -- oh, yes!

  16. Yvette, these are terrific covers of art-related mysteries and I didn't know Dick Francis had written two of them. I read a lot of his novels in college. I'm going to pick up TO THE HILT and IN THE FRAME as soon as I can.

  17. Prashant let us know how you liked the two Dick Francis books if you get a chance to read them. :)

    Actually, all the books I've listed are pretty wonderful.

  18. One more suggestions, Yvette, for Michael Innes - "Silence Observed," which is all about some rather novel art fraud (and, of course, murder), handled with Innes's usual humor and urbanity. It's my review next week on my podcast. As I know you enjoy Innes, I suggest this one!

    (apologies if this is a duplicate - Blogger seems to lose comments pretty easily)

  19. Sorry for the late comment, but wanted to add Canadian writer Robertson Davies's What's Bred in the Bone, about an artist who doesn't exactly paint forgeries, but paints in the style if old masters and then just stands by while critics ascribe his work to them. An interesting meditation on what makes great art great. Although not technically a mystery, there are lots if secrets uncovered during the course of the book.

  20. And the Joe McCarthy poster -- what a find!

    So many people harmed by that guy, artists, writers, directors, actors, awful.

    The poster says it!

  21. I've added the name to the list, thanks Les. I'll be checking out your review, of course.

  22. Deb, this reminds me of FORGERY OF VENUS, it too is about an artist who paints in the style of the old masters.

    I'm definitely adding your suggestion to my TBR list. I've never read any Robertson Davies.

    It's never too late to comment around here. :)

  23. Kathy - isn't it wonderful? Hard to believe it's not just someone being ironic.

    McCarthy was a pig.

  24. Meant to add: Kathy, you will love LOOT. The scene in the Hungarian hotel room is worth the price of admission. Also the scenes with the dachsund in Germany. So subtle, so wry, so funny.

    You will LOVE this book!

  25. I can't wait to get Loot. Not only the Hungarian hotel room, but I love dachshunds. Just put it on library hold. (Gosh, this website adds to my TBR library lists every time I come here.)

    And, yes, McCarthy was a slime. I had to call him a pig, as I love pigs. His disgusting campaigns harmed so many people, including some I've known, family friends.

    So, bah, humbug to him!

  26. Though the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva is, as you suspect, mostly about his espionage activities for the Mossad, several of the books are very art-related indeed. The 10th in the series, THE REMBRANDT AFFAIR, is keyed on the provenance of a painting looted by the Nazis and displays Allon at his best as a restorer and "art detective" While the series should be read in order (which I've sort of done, starting with the 8th, lol) the Rembrandt volume could work well as an introduction or stand-alone. I'd bet, however, that you'll wind up reading more.

  27. Hi Mintonmedia, I'm sorry to say that I've just noticed that I never responded to your comment. Apologies.

    Lately I seem to be getting more and more scatterbrained than ever.

    I've read a couple of the Gabriel Allon series but that's about it. Never read THE REMBRANDT AFFAIR. I'm about to request it at the library because it sounds very intriguing. I love mysteries based on the provenance of paintings, that sort of thing. THANK YOU for letting me know about this one.

    Again, I apologize for the lateness of my response.


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