Friday, October 5, 2012

Friday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: A DECEPTIVE CLARITY (1987) by Aaron Elkins

(Best I can do, cover-wise. Nothing better to copy on line. It's a shame really because these three books have gorgeous paperback covers. Something you can't really appreciate with this tiny version which blurs if I enlarge it.)

Friday is not only the end of the work week, but it is also, as most of you know, the day to post about Forgotten (or Overlooked) Books. This weekly meme is usually hosted by Patti Abbott, but this week, Todd Mason is doing hosting duty at his blog, Sweet Freedom. So don't forget to check in and see what other neglected books other bloggers are talking about today.

A DECEPTIVE CLARITY is the first book in the Chris Norgren series which, unfortunately, is only three books strong. (At least so far. I live in hope that the author will revive the series sometime.) Aaron Elkins is well known for his terrific 'skeleton doctor' books featuring forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver (I've read every one) but I am also a big fan of Chris Norgren. Chris is a San Francisco museum curator, a low-key, likable kind of guy who just happens to be brilliant - at least when it comes to his specialty: Renaissance and Baroque art

Chris also has a kind of fumbling knack for getting involved in mysteries and coming to the attention of the  very nasty bad guys who lurk in the shadows of the museum and art business. Who knew the art biz was so rife with skulduggery? I mean, it's a hot-bed of intrigue which, in this case, means murder most foul.

So here's the plot: Chris is in the middle of a divorce after ten years of marriage (his wife ran off with a stockbroker) and is only too happy to head to Europe at his boss's request. There he is to assist his immediate supervisor, the charmingly patrician Peter van Cortlandt as he, in conjunction with the U.S. Army in Berlin, arranges an important show of recovered paintings plundered by the Nazis.

The exhibition is entitled The Plundered Past and is featuring, among other looted treasures, several paintings recently uncovered in a German cave - an astonishing discovery after so many years. The paintings, a Vermeer, a Titian and a Rubens were/are originally owned by the very wealthy Italian, Claudio Bolzano who, though jittery, is lending them for the show. Bolzano is elderly and sickly, but still astute enough to want to make sure that nothing further happens to his beloved paintings. Paintings he'd thought lost forever.

But there appears to be a fly in the ointment. Peter hints strongly that there's something wrong with one of the paintings found in the hidden cache. Something he can't quite explain and will Chris take a closer look while Peter is away smoothing more ruffled feathers connected with the show?

With little to go on, Chris takes a second look at the paintings and we get lots of fascinating tidbits about the art of forgery as well as the specific way in which the Renaissance masters worked. I don't know about you, but I find this sort of detail incredibly interesting - this is an art mystery after all.

When Chris travels to Florence to reassure Bolzano, he stops at his favorite hotel near the church of Santa Maria Novella, a destination Chris considers his own personal pilgrimage.

"Five minutes after I'd checked in and been effused over by Alberto like the old client I was, I was inside the church, standing before a shadowed fresco in pale browns midway down the let wall of the nave. Inconspicuous, washed-out-looking, pretty much ignored in this city crammed with fabulous art treasures, it is  a landmark in the history of art.

There have been lots of landmark artworks and a lot of landmark artists, but only once has a painter single-handedly launched with a single painting a movement that changed art forever. The painter was Masaccio, the painting was the Holy Trinity, and the movement, if that's a strong enough word, was the Renaissance. In painting, anyway; Donatello and Brunelleschi had already gotten the ball rolling in sculpture and architecture.

The twenty-four-year-old Masaccio's innovations were stunning. He used light as no painter before him had. Even the great Giotto's light had been flat, sourceless, an obvious necessity but no more. Masaccio illuminated with it, hid with it, molded with it. And Masaccio's figures are the first 'clothed nudes'; they look as if they could get out of their robes if they wanted to, and nobody in a painting had ever looked that way before...."

(If ever I go to Florence, this is one of the first places I'll be headed to and I hope I am capable of the same sort of awe.)

Back to the story: When the fastidious Peter van Cortlandt turns up dead outside a sleazy German brothel, Chris realizes that something is amiss. He makes the connection between the death of the curator and the possible forgery in the show with the coaching of a good looking Army Major named Anne Green,  protocol liaison.

The plot thickens as Chris begins to get at the truth and attempts are made on his life and an El Greco is blown up along with some guards. And you thought all museum curators did was...uh, curate.

Written with Aaron Elkins customary wit and obvious enjoyment of his craft, A DECEPTIVE CLARITY is definitely worth your time and and any trouble to find it.

For a complete listing of all of Aaron Elkins' books, including the three art mysteries featuring Chris Norgren, please use this link.


  1. Yvette, Now this sounds like my kind of Subject. I love art and thrillers.. He does sound like a very intresting man.

    Oh no it is going to take
    3 or 4 times more to send comment. I just can't read that code

  2. Yvette, I must admit I've never read any of Elkins's books. It's time I started - he's to be given a Lifetime Achievement Award next spring at Malice Domestic. I guess you've given me a good place to start reading!

  3. I love Forgotten Fridays!!! I always get the best recs from you in these posts. Plus, this one is only $3.99 on my Nook. Thanks!

  4. Yvette, I'm not familiar with mysteries revolving around art or art museums but I can see why you enjoyed it so much, given your own background in art. Aaron Elkins must be an art expert to be able to write an art mystery of such calibre. among films based on art, I remember watching and liking THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo.

    By the way, Yvette, I enjoyed your pictorial review of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. I don't know how I missed this Woody Allen film.

  5. Check out the list of books on the fantastic fiction site, Les. I think Elkins has won a couple of Edgars.

    The thing I like best about his books is the wry sense of humor. Plus I get to travel all over the world - more or less. :)

    Elkins has also written one of the best stand-alones ever: LOOT. You might want to begin with that one.
    It is superb. Far as I'm concerned, anyway.

  6. Thanks! I hope you enjoy it, Picky. As I mentioned, it's the second in a trilogy cut short by the success Elkins' Gideon Oliver books. I've read just about everything he's ever written (except the golf books he writes with his wife) and I highly recommend him.

  7. There are several mystery series featuring art history and museums and such, Prashant. I'm going to post a list this coming week.

    MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is wonderful. I hope you'll like it as much as I did.

  8. Sorry about the code, Yvonne, but if I disable it I get hit with all sorts of annoying spam.

    At any rate, you will love these books. I'm sure of it.

  9. Dear Yvette - They say that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover (and of course I realize the greater meaning of the maxim), but as a graphic designer, I've always been influenced by good packaging. I appreciate your distress at not being able to better show the cover of "A Deceptive Clarity!"

  10. I knew you would, Mark. :)

    They really are well designed and executed.


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