Monday, December 24, 2012

Charlotte Elkins and Aaron Elkins write an amusing art-historical mystery.

This novel sounded like it would be amusing, especially since it was set in Santa Fe and concerned Georgia O’Keefe.  I had not encountered this writing couple before, but I will keep a look out from now on.

A Dangerous Talent

Alix London, the heroine of Charlotte Elkins’ and Aaron Elkins’ novel A Dangerous Talent (270 pages, Thomas & Mercer, $14.95) is trying to make her way as an art restorer and advisor to collectors.  She is struggling in her career, largely because she is not well known.  And what people do know about her, they know because of her father.  And that is really no help at all.

Geoff, her well-meaning but utterly frustrating father, has himself just come out of prison for his major role in a huge art forgery ring.  The well-heeled and extraordinarily easy life to which he had introduced his daughter has simply disappeared, and she feels that if she were never to hear from him, it would be too soon.

He has helped her behind the scenes, though, with his long-standing and not so terribly tarnished connections, and in addition he has helped her find a great restoration gig—she is cleaning and restoring the works of a wonderful collector, who has also left the country for a while and allowed Alix to stay in her apartment while she works.  In the middle of this work, she is approached by a different collector who would like to take her on as an advisor to search for art and to help develop her taste.  Alix responds warily; but when this woman, Chris Lemay, proposes a quick trip to Santa Fe in her private jet to look at a Georgia O’Keefe landscape she is hoping to buy, Alix jumps at the chance to leave rainy Seattle for the desert sun.

Things start to go wrong, however, as soon as the pair arrive in Santa Fe.  Alix is scheduled to stay in a casita at the inn where they have reserved.  But no sooner does she enter with her bags, then she smells gas.  And in minutes the whole place has exploded.  Everyone apologizes for the accident, but she senses that there is more to it.

These feelings intensify when the art dealer they have arrived to meet is murdered before they have had much time to do more than say hello to the woman.  This cannot be coincidental, and they are terribly confused about what it all means.

Shuffling around and trying to make sense of it himself, is the handsome and deceptive FBI agent, Ted Ellesworth, who first presents himself as a wealthy Boston collector in town to see some of the same paintings Alix and Chris have come to see.  He is suspicious of the young and attractive Alix, however, because he knows about her father and he cannot imagine that she is not involved in the art scams that he has come to Santa Fe to investigate.

There are many more complications, a few more murders and attempted murders before things start to become clear.  The big issue for Alix, aside from staying alive, is whether or not she can ever forgive her father.  Let’s just say that the novelists make it so that she really has very little choice.

This is an engaging novel, well-paced and carefully plotted, with likable characters and a very satisfying ending.  I will definitely watch for more mysteries by this interesting couple.

Charlotte and Aaron Elkins

A Dangerous Talent is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Matt Cairone tells a chilling tale of gambling and murder.

This novel sounded intriguing, not least because it was called “an existential work of literary fiction” in the publishers blurb.

The Brit

The Brit (346 pages, CreateSpace Publishing, $10.50) tells the story of the professional gambler, T.S. Fowler, and various people who encounter him during his short time in Las Vegas, Nevada.

T.S., who is mostly called The Brit in the novel, has come to Las Vegas to improve his earnings at poker, which he plays for high stakes, as does his wife, and they both support themselves in this way.  The Brit is not cheating or working any system besides luck and his knowledge of the game.  But he gets so into playing that he hardly eats, pops amphetamines to stay awake, and drinks, with coffee or gin, depending on whether he wants to keep playing or to crash.

On this particular visit to Las Vegas, he seems to be doing well in reconstructing his fortunes.  He is strung out, but he still manages to keep up decent conversational patter, and when he does chat late one night with an attractive corporate lawyer, she is on her guard, but she likes him enough to give him her card.

Meanwhile, in London, his wife Edith is trying to cope with a sense that her life has become meaningless.  She visits a counselor and feels for the first time in a long time happy about her prospects and the chance of working things out with the husband, whom she realizes she hardly knows.

During his second day, the Brit’s luck turns sour, and he almost instantly loses not only all his gains but everything he bought with him to Las Vegas.  This sends him into a crazed spell in which he does some horrendous things, and the next thing Edith hears is that he is being held in a Las Vegas jail on an indictment for murder.

Edith responds to his call and heads to Las Vegas with the little cash she has and no idea where to turn.  In the meantime, the Brit has phoned the lawyer, Mary, explaining his plight and asking for her help.  She says she will try to help him find an attorney, but she does nothing and he is appointed a public defender.  That turns out to be an overworked but very competent and concerned young man, who helps the Brit to shape a defense.  He calls Mary again, however, and asks her to help with his wife.

Feeling guilty, Mary agrees to contact Edith and offer her a place to stay when she arrives in Las Vegas.  The two women hit it off immediately, and the intensity of their feelings help them both deal with the crises surrounding them.  I say “crises” because everything seems to go wrong.  The judge rejects a plea—because he is upset that a Lockerbie defendant has been set free in Britain; there is an explosion at the jail; and Edith ends up returning to London alone.

It is a simple tale, almost a long short story or a novella, but it is powerful and thought provoking in lots of ways.  I am not sure I would call it existential, but I would recommend it nonetheless.

Matt Cairone

The Brit: Drawing Dead is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

John Boyne writes a powerful novel about friendship and war.

The Absolutist

John Boyne’s The Absolutist (320 pages, Other Press, $16.95) tells a riveting story about the friendship between two teenage soldiers during the First World War.  Tristan Sadler and Will Bancroft meet during training in Aldershot in England before being sent to France to engage in fighting.

The novel is told in retrospect by Tristan, and it quickly becomes clear that of the two, he is the one who survived the war.  Clearly he is shaken by the experience, and as the details emerge, through both his recounting of the experiences themselves and his story as he tells it to Will’s older sister after the war, we come to realize a wrenching and devastating experience whose enormity we only gradually understand.

In training, Tristan and Will become friends, even though they come from different backgrounds—Will’s father is a vicar in a prosperous town, and Tristan’s father is a butcher in grimy North London.  Be that as it may, these two good looking and intelligent young men become soul mates and they find a way of facing the horror of training and what will come after with a certain degree of equanimity.

Their intimacy intensifies, in a way, as they, but especially Will, befriend a conscientious objector among the twenty young men in their regiment.  Wolf, this friend, is outspoken and insistent on his objections to the war.  At first Tristan is simply jealous of Wolf.  He is spending considerable time with Will, and Tristan resents any time that he spends away from the man he has come to love.  When, still in Aldeshot, Wolf is murdered, after it is made to look like he is trying to escape, Will is knocked for a loop.  Tristan is not so quick to imagine a conspiracy, but Will is sure.  He is devastated by Wolf’s loss and what it implies, but he does not discover until later how much it means to him.

Meanwhile Tristan is mooning over Will, and before they leave England, Will initiates a sexual encounter that thrills and confuses Tristan.  He is thrilled for obvious reasons, but he is confused because Will ignores him and refuses to talk about their experience afterward.  He is becoming more and more concerned about the political situation and has no interest in talking about their personal affairs.  

Once in France, the experience of the trenches is told in vivid and grueling detail.  In the midst of the mud and the lice and the constant death all around them, Tristan is still obsessed with Will, and almost to increase the torment, Will drags him off for another encounter, even as he treats him more sternly and almost hostilely.

When Tristan is trying to tell Will's sister what happened to her brother, she knows he is hiding something, and he is hiding it from us as well.  What finally emerges is that when Will sees a brutal atrocity that seems to him to be against any conventions of war or humanity, he turns against the war.  Tristan tries to calm him down, but Will, motivated by an abiding principle, challenges the powers that be and finds himself in opposition to his commanding officers.

Needless to say, this is an uncomfortable position, but what makes it even more difficult in these extreme conditions is the drama that is played out between these two men as the life and death intensity of the war is played out all around them.

Boyne tells this story beautifully, and I don’t want to reduce any of the impact of what happens in the end.  I will say, though, that this is a beautifully crafted novel that will cause you to keep thinking about it for a long time to come.

John Boyne

The Absolutist is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.