Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Only the Best Junque

Most people collect something, even if they think they don't. They may make a conscious choice or fall into it almost by accident, but you will know when their eyes suddenly light up and they begin to gleefully and minutely describe this or that treasure that you have discovered their passion. This nearly universal acquisitive instinct is fed by the surge in popularity of stories and shows about collecting and collectors.

In J.B. Stanley's A Fatal Appraisal, Molly Appleby, a writer for Collectors Weekly magazine, is on her way to Richmond to cover a shooting of Hidden Treasures, an Antiques Roadshow type of program. Having persuaded her boss to spring for a B&B instead of the usual strip motel, she is delighted with the antique-filled Traveler House, named for General Lee's horse. Several of the chief appraisers are also staying there, including one from the British version of the show.

When the famous furniture appraiser (who resembles neither of the irresistibly exuberant Keno brothers) fails to appear for the first day of shooting in the local Civil War museum hosting the show, Molly checks for his car in the parking lot only to find him, swollen and dead, still clutching the steering wheel. Traces of mold in the priceless Revolutionary War period desk that is the centerpiece of the show appear to have been the cause. Another appraiser is strangled after noting disdainfully that several valuable coins in the museum's collection are fakes. The shoot is in shambles, and the long lines of ticket holders clutching their treasures for evaluation must go home disappointed. The writing here was somewhat trite and cliche-filled, but it offered a good plot and a fascinating and unusual look behind the scenes of an Antiques Roadshow setting. I would love to read more mysteries set around the making of this show.

Jane Wheel is a Chicago-based collectible picker in Sharon Fiffer's Scary Stuff, the sixth in this cozy series. Like the American Pickers, she finds her treasures at yard sales, flea markets, and old barns and houses. She is visiting her brother and his family in California when a drunken man approaches Michael and threatens to sue him. Michael says, "Look at me closely," and the man apologizes and stumbles off after a close scrutiny of his face. Michael is disturbed; it is the third time he has been mistaken for "Honest Joe," a very dishonest online seller of fake collectibles. Since Honest Joe mails his packages from a town near Chicago, Jane takes it upon herself to investigate the man who is causing her brother so much trouble. When she learns that Honest Joe may be living with a cousin she never knew she had, and a woman whose inherited treasures she is valuing is murdered, things get strange very fast.

This story just didn't come together for me. Too many words spent on too many weird characters failed to compensate for the rather weak story line. Nonetheless, I appreciated the warning about the number and variety of frauds that can happen in online auctions.

Recently widowed antique print dealer Maggie Summer decides to participate as usual in the Rensselaer Spring Antiques Show in Lea Wait's Shadows at the Fair. She sets up her booth next to that of her friend Gussie, who is sporting a new motorized wheelchair. Gussie's nephew Ben, a young man with mild Down's Syndrome, is assisting his aunt.

When Ben knocks down a man who was threatening a woman that night, he asks Maggie for help making sure the man is not hurt. They find Harry dead, nowhere near where Ben thinks he knocked him down. Both the police and Ben think that he has killed Harry, and Ben is arrested.

When it is found that Harry died of poisoning, like a dealer at an earlier show, Harry's wife asks Maggie's help finding her husband's murderer. They have only three days before the fair is disbanded, and the dealers scattered. This solidly constructed first in a series was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Mystery, and I look forward to reading more of Maggie's adventures.

Arthur's Story, a short story by Kathleen Valentine, isn't exactly about collecting, nor is it a mystery, but it beautifully incorporates one of the enduring fantasies of my childhood. Young Arthur, orphaned and homeless shortly before WW1, discovers an unlocked window into the cluttered attic of an imposing old brownstone.

With winter coming on, he builds himself a cozy nest on a pile of carpets by a chimney and reads the winter away, only sneaking out every few days with a filched trinket or two to sell for provisions. Fortuitously, he finds almost everything he needs in the capacious attic, from clothing he can wear, to a chalkboard and chalk, to leftover staple provisions. New boxes of treasures are lugged up from time to time by a pair of gossipy footmen, who never suspect his presence. Arthur lives safely and secretly, like a mouse in the attic, for several years, until he is old enough to enlist. This heart-lifting little story, available as an ebook only, vastly improved my mood for the rest of a gloomy day.

Growing up in a large family with a relentlessly decluttering mother, I had no opportunity to collect anything. Everything was recycled through younger sibs and finally discarded. So I'm not much of a collector, except for the books, which somehow multiply like rabbits. Oh, and a bureau full of lovely antique table linens, mostly mismatched, acquired over many years. I had some exquisite lace ones, but quickly learned that lace and cats don't mix. The frogs were an accident. My husband once brought me a charming signed cartoon print of a frog flying a Sopwith Camel that had caught his eye. The word went out, and I was given at least one frog every Christmas for years. I finally drew the line after my husband and a friend hauled this jovial forty pound fellow crafted by a New England artisan several blocks to our waiting van. He still makes visitors smile, and his hat is a handy place to drop keys and wallets. Intentionally or accidentally, nearly everyone collects something. So what lights up your eyes and makes your fingers twitch?

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