We’ve all heard of world-famous paintings such as Picasso’s Guernica. Beyond their monetary value, there’s just something about certain pieces of artwork that capture the imagination – or at least, people’s attention. If you’ve ever stood looking at a piece of artwork, drawn to it, you know what I mean.
And artwork certainly plays its role in crime fiction. And we don’t just see it in ‘heist’ stories, either. Sometimes, a particular piece of art is central to a plot; sometimes it’s not. Either way, it can add an interesting layer to a story.
For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, Inspector Lestrade brings Sherlock Holmes an unusual case of vandalism. It seems that two busts of Napoleon, sold by the same shop, have been smashed. Then another is found smashed, and this time, there’s also a murder. Lestrade wonders whether the culprit is some sort of madman with a fanatical hatred of Napoleon, but Holmes guesses that’s not the case. He traces the smashed busts to their origin, and, in the end, finds out why someone would want to destroy them.
In Agatha Christie’s short story Within a Wall, famous artist Alan Everard and his wife, Isobel, host a tea party to unveil his latest work: a portrait of her. It’s technically flawless, but Everard knows it doesn’t have the passion of his earlier works. Then, one of the guests discovers a painting of Everard’s daughter’s godmother (and his muse) Jane Haworth. The contrast between the two paintings shows just how much influence Jane has had on his work, and that influence has had its consequences. Admittedly, this story isn’t really as much a crime story as it is a psychological study. But it shows how one painting can play an important role in a story. I see you, fans of Five Little Pigs…
Aaron Elkins’ Loot begins as Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call from his friend, pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. It seems that Pawlovsky has gotten in a new painting, and he wants Revere to tell him whether it’s valuable. Revere goes to the shop, expecting that the painting won’t be worth much. To his shock, though, it appears to be a priceless Velázquez. Revere wants to do some research on the painting, but he’s concerned for Pawlovsky’s safety if the painting is left in the shop. He asks for permission to take the painting with him while he does the research, but Pawlovsky refuses. Reluctantly, Revere leaves the painting behind. By the time he returns, Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Guilty about leaving his friend in such a dangerous situation, Revere wants to know who’s responsible for the killing. He knows that he’s not a professional detective. But he reasons that, if he can trace the painting from its last known owner to the pawn shop, he might be able to find out who the killer is. And that’s what he proceeds to do. It gets him into plenty of danger, but Revere finds out the truth.
As Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the PM of Belgrave Square begins, Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr of the Garda Síochána is at the scene of a murder. Antiques and art dealer William Craig has been shot, and his body has been discovered behind the building that houses his home and his shop. McGarr and his assistant, O’Shaughnessy, have just gotten started on the case when it’s discovered that one of the paintings in the shop is missing. This adds a possible motive, and McGarr wants to find out more about the painting. His wife, Noreen, works at her family’s picture gallery, and has a background in art history. So, he taps her expertise. It turns out that the research she does, and the background of that painting, prove to be important clues in this case.
An argument over a painting is an important plot point in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Hickory Smoked Homicide. Tristan Pembroke is a wealthy beauty pageant coach, who’s as malicious and mean-spirited as she is influential. She commissions a portrait from local artist Sara Taylor. Tristan isn’t happy at all with the result, as she feels that it doesn’t do her justice. So, she refuses to pay Sara. As you can imagine, that prompts a dispute between the two. When Tristan holds a charity art auction at her home, Sara includes the painting among the pieces that will be sold. After all, she reasons, who’s going to want to buy a portrait of someone else who isn’t world-famous? At the auction, the painting prompts another argument. Later, Tristan is found murdered, and Sara becomes the prime suspect. Her mother-in-law, Lulu Taylor (the sleuth in this series) knows that Sara’s innocent, and she sets out to find out who the real killer is.
And then there’s Gail Bowen’s The Gifted. Political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, and her husband, Zack, are excited when their daughter, Taylor, is invited to include some of her work in an upcoming charity art auction. Taylor is a talented, passionate artist, and this is a real chance for her. She’s already shown her parents one of the two pieces that she will contribute. The other, which she’s called BlueBoy21, is a portrait of her muse and love interest, Julian Zentner. No-one sees that painting until it’s revealed on the night of the auction. And it turns out that that piece of artwork will have tragic consequences for more than one person.
Some pieces of art are like that. Beyond any monetary value, they have influence, appeal, or influence on their own. These are just a few examples of how plot point can play out in crime fiction. I know you’ll think of others.
The ‘photo is of a beautiful Joan Miró sculpture that’s displayed at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, in Madrid.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me).