Right until the end the reader is kept guessing as to the identity of the art thief behind the convoluted series of disappearances and reappearances of forged and genuine paintings. The two paintings at the centre of this novel are ‘White on White,’ by Kasimir Malevich, a Russian avant-garde painter, which was stolen from the Paris premises of the Malevich Society, and the ‘Annunciation’ by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the seventeenth century painter, which was stolen from a church in Rome.
The events described in the book take us from a distinguished art scholar to an expert on security systems, the bidding process at Christie’s and the policing systems and methods of Italy, France and the UK. That’s all well and good, but how are we supposed to keep track of the various comings and goings of the stolen pieces of art, interspersed with ‘clues’ provided by obscure biblical verses? And why would a thief want to provide clues to the whereabouts of the missing art pieces? Not only that, but why on earth should one forged replica be painted over another, and what does it all mean?
In my view the often pretentious style of writing in this book and the scenes and situations portrayed simply provide the author with an opportunity to show off his knowledge of art history, security systems and other aspects of the high cost of art in the world today. In between all this, the reader is required to exercise a little bit of linguistic detective work to decipher the occasional conversations in Italian and French. What for, I hear you ask. You may well ask. I think this is all part of the author’s need to show off his knowledge, which is admittedly extensive, of the various subjects.
The portrayal of the characters involved also leaves much to be desired. The bumbling, overweight French detective is more concerned with the food on his plate than finding the missing art work, and the lugubrious British detective does not bring a lot of credit to Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiquities Department, though we are given an interesting insight into his private domestic life and the depressing way of life of the ordinary Londoner. Its all so depressingly stereotypical.
All in all, this book could have contained the seeds of an interesting story, but instead it gets involved in ever-more-complicated tricks and attempts to obscure the trail. I have a sneaking suspicion that the author had his eye on having the story somehow picked up by Hollywood. If it does I hope some scriptwriter manages to sort out the story line to get it to make sense.