Sketch the Trees and the Daffodils*

ArtMany people love art just for its own sake. They visit museums and if they have enough money, they have their own art collections. But art can also be very valuable. People who see art as a financial investment may even collect it for that reason. And of course, something that’s worth a lot of money is also a very attractive target for theft and (in the case of art) forgery. Little wonder the art business is such a popular context for crime fiction. Anything worth that much money is bound to attract crime. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), the family of patriarch Richard Abernethie gathers for his funeral and the reading of his will. When his youngest sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered, everyone hushes her up at first, and even she takes back what she said. But the next day, Cora herself is killed. Now the family attorney Mr. Entwhistle begins to believe that perhaps she was right, and in any case he wants to know who killed her.  So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. There are several suspects too, since everyone in the family benefited from both Abernethie’s death and that of his sister. As Poirot traces Cora’s last days and weeks, he learns that she was an enthusiastic (if not particularly skilled) painter who kept hoping to find a masterpiece when she picked up various paintings at estate and bargain sales. That’s how she made the acquaintance of art expert Alexander Guthrie, who, as it turns out, plays a role in the outcome of this story.

Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn is married to artist Agatha Troy, so the art world is a frequent context in her novels. And sometimes the art world can be dangerous. In A Clutch of Constables, for instance, Troy decides to take a much-needed getaway cruise on the Zodiac. But it doesn’t turn out to be the restful trip she wants. First, one of the passengers is left behind when the boat leaves the dock, and is later found murdered. Then, during the trip, another passenger is drowned, and quite probably not by accident. Meanwhile, Troy learns that an international art forger known only as Jampot may be along for the cruise, and may have had something to do with the deaths. She tells the story to her husband in the form of a series of letters that he later uses in a class he’s teaching.

It’s well-known that just before and during World War II, the Nazis ‘safeguarded’ large fortunes of art. Some of it has been returned to the families that rightfully own it; much hasn’t. That valuable art figures into the plot of several novels. One of them is Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the PM of Belgrave Square. Garda Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr and his assistant O’Shaugnessy investigate the shooting death of Dublin art and antiques dealer William Craig. In the process, they look into Craig’s business dealings as well as his personal life, and they find more than one suspect. Then it’s discovered that one of the paintings in Craig’s inventory is missing. This opens up other possibilities for the murder, one of which leads back to Nazi art theft during World War II. In the end, and with help from his wife Noreen, who works in her family’s art gallery, McGarr finds out the truth about Craig’s murder.

That theme of looted art from the Nazi era is also at the core of Aaron Elkins’ Loot. Boston art historian/expert Ben Revere gets a call one day from pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky, a casual friend. Pawlovsky’s just gotten a painting he thinks may be valuable and he wants Revere’s opinion on it. Revere agrees and visits the shop. There he is shocked to find that the painting is likely an extremely valuable Velázquez. He wants to check out some facts though, and promises to return to the shop once he’s done so. When he does return after a few hours, he finds that Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Revere feels some responsibility for the killing; he believes he should have insisted that Pawlovsky not keep such a valuable piece of art in his shop. So he decides to try to trace the painting, hoping it will lead him to the killer. It turns out that the painting is one of a truckload of ‘safeguarded’ pieces of art that disappeared during World War II.  Revere travels to Europe and slowly finds out how the painting got from the back of the truck to a pawn shop. In that end, that trail also leads to the killer.

Art theft is also at the heart of Ian Rankin’s Doors Open. Wealthy Mike Mackenzie is a little bored with his life and wants to put some excitement back into it. One of his friends is banker Allan Cruikshank, with whom he shares a love of art. Together with art professor Robert Gissing, and with help from local gangster Chib Calloway, the group concocts a very daring scheme. They want to rob the National Gallery of Scotland and replace some of its extremely valuable holdings with forgeries that will be created by one of Gissing’s art students, who’s usually known as ‘Westie.’ The group chooses the gallery’s Doors Open day for the robbery. On that day, the gallery will open its warehouse and some other private areas to the public, and it seems like the perfect opportunity for the robbery. Everything goes off well enough, but the group soon learns that just stealing valuable art isn’t all there is to benefiting from it…

Because art is valuable, there are also plenty of crime stories that involve art auctions, whether for gain or charity. For instance, Gail Bowen’s The Gifted has as one of its plot threads a charity art auction that’s intended to benefit the Racette-Hunter Centre, a community development project. Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband Zack are both excited and concerned when two pieces of their daughter Taylor’s work are chosen to be auctioned. Taylor is an unusually gifted artist, but she is also only fourteen, and her parents are concerned about the major changes that this kind of notice will bring to her life. Taylor shares one piece of her work with her parents, but no-one has seen the other. On the night of the auction, she reveals that other painting and that work has drastic consequences for more than one person.

A charity art auction is the setting for a murder in Riley Adams’ (AKA  Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide. Socialite and beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke puts together a charity art auction and dinner. Underneath that beneficent exterior though, she’s actually a malicious and spiteful person. So when she’s murdered at the auction, there are several suspects. Lulu Taylor, who owns and runs Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, gets involved in the investigation because her daughter-in-law Sara is high on the list of candidates. Lulu wants to clear Sara’s name, so she starts to ask questions. The art itself isn’t the reason for this murder, but I can say without spoiling the story that a particular painting plays a role in the mystery.

All of this just shows that art is more than something people love for its own sake. It’s a very valuable commodity. Little wonder there are so many crime novels that involve art theft and forgery. Which ones have you enjoyed?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don McLean’s Vincent (Starry, Starry Night).


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Bartholomew Gill, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Ngaio Marsh, Riley Adams

24 responses to “Sketch the Trees and the Daffodils*

  1. Ah, got to love a good art forgery! One of my favourites is the one in ‘Ripley Under Ground’ by Patricia Highsmith, in which Tom Ripley has apparently become respectable… except for the minor matter of a few art forgery cons, whopping lies and a murder.

    • Marina Sofia – Oh, that is a good example of exactly what I had mind with this post. I almost used it myself, but in the end I didn’t, so I’m glad you filled in that gap.

  2. I’m wracking my brain to think of a story I read years ago about the theft of the bronze horses of San Marco in Venice. Maybe one of your readers will remember it better than I can, Margot. Nice post, BTW!

  3. Here’s an obscure (but relevant) example: E. R. Punshon’s “Diabolic Candelabra.” Written in 1942, the book has all sorts of peculiar goings-on, a murder or two – and rumors of a couple of missing paintings that may or may not be by El Greco (and which would make a terrific motive for murder). There’s also a priceless, and very bizarre, candelabra attributed to the great Italian master Benvenuto Cellini, one designed with the faces of demons from Hell. It’s an odd – and surprisingly funny and endearing – mystery, with those elusive art works at the heart of it all.

    • Les – Oh, that sounds like a great example! I have to admit I’ve never heard of it before, but it sounds really absorbing. And those art works in and of themselves are enough of a reason to give the book a go. 🙂

  4. Art brings our the best and worst in people. I love a good story told through art.

  5. The Margery Allingham book Death of a Ghost took the art world as its theme, and did it very well indeed: studios, great old men of art, people doing fakes etc. And a murder of course!

  6. Which reminds me I have the book THE ART FORGER around somewhere. Love movies about art heists. In books it doesn’t usually come off as well. Very visual.

  7. I love reading about the vagaries of living the artistic life whether it is visual art or the world of theatre, literature or dance. So interesting – and it often goes hand in hand with good mystery reading because these are PASSIONATE people and so…
    While saying that I cannot bring to mind a book but that is because of my mind – not that there aren’t plenty! Oh here are a few – the ongoing story of the husband and wife artists that live in Louise Penny’s books – Peter and Clara Morrow – don’t think there is much forgery or theft but their artistic temperaments have involved them in several crimes in and out of Three Pines.

    • Jan – Oh, Peter and Clara Morrow are great examples of artists and artistic temperaments! As you say, they’re not thieves or forgers, but they have gotten involved in crimes and it’s so interesting to see how passionate they are about what they do. Sometimes I think they need that emotional edge to create the way they do. I think you have a well-taken point that the very same passion that drives the creative process can also be destructive. Like everything else, passion needs to be channeled, but it isn’t always is it?

  8. Johnny Ojanpera

    I am totally out of my league here, but I am ssoaking up so much great information. I’ve planned a trip to a small used book store that is packed with every kind of murder mystery I can imagine. It’s one of those places that I’m glad no one knows about. Thanks, Margot.

    • Johnny – I know exactly the kind of small bookshop you mean! It’s one of those place you can practically put a camp bed in and stay there for a while. I appreciate the kind words about my post and I’m glad you find your visits here interesting.

      • Johnny Ojanpera

        Exactly. It is run by two very old ladies,, and it’s out in the country. It smells like old, musty books, which is fabulous. I leave there with bags of books every time and can barely spend $20. I love your blog too. 🙂

  9. Col

    Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters concerns an art thief. Not his best book I don’t think.

    • Col – Right you are of course. I have to confess I’ve not read Headhuntersand I’ve heard from several people that it isn’t his finest. I may read it at some point, but to be honest, I won’t rush out for it.

  10. I am reading LOOT this year. For sure. I have been planning to read it for years. Your other examples sound interesting too.

  11. Thanks, regarding the Poirot title. I’m on a quest to read ALL of this master of the little gray cells adventures, and this was a title I did not know. :)))

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