Friday, March 29, 2013

Review of Mick Herron's Dead Lions

Dead Lions by Mick Herron

Let's say a telephone line worker is out working in the phone company truck one day when he realizes he forgot his lunch at home. So he drives home in the truck to get his lunch, and on the way back he blows through a stop sign and hits a car. Now let's say, instead, that the worker decides to ignore that boring packed lunch and drives over to the Bada Bing for a lunch of beer, chicken wings and live entertainment. On the way back to the job, he blows through a stop sign and hits a car.

Is the phone company liable for the worker's car accident? Well, this is where the delightfully-named "frolic and detour" principles of the law kick in. The first scenario is a mere detour, which means that the worker was still sufficiently on the job to make the phone company liable for his accident. But the second scenario is a frolic (in more ways than one), and the phone company isn't liable.

Now let's say the employer isn't the phone company, but Britain's MI5 intelligence service, the line worker is an entire small office building's worth of castoff agents gone rogue, and the damage ranges from severe embarrassment to kneecapping to gory death. In other words, not just a detour or even a frolic, but some whole new legal concept, like maybe ruckus, binge, spree, rampage, rumble or wingding. Though maybe being British, they'd go for understatement and call it something like a perturbation.

Whatever you call it, and whatever the legal consequences, what we have in Mick Herron's Dead Lions is decidedly not just another day on the job. At MI5, if you screw up in a big way––like become a blackout drunk or punch out another agent in the lunchroom or let highly confidential material fall into the hands of the press––then you end up being moved from Regent's Park to Slough House. At Slough House, the "Slow Horses" are given endless, dull paperwork, in hopes they'll give up and resign.

In case the humiliation of becoming a Slow Horse, and the tedium of the work aren't enough encouragement to quit, Slough House boss Jackson Lamb turns up the discomfort level with a constant stream of insults, demeaning assignments (like picking up his takeout orders) and crude gross-outs, like aiming his deadly flatulence directly at his charges.

The current denizens of Slough House are made of sterner stuff, though, and won't be pushed into resigning. Or maybe it's just that they're too stubborn or stupid to realize the movers will never be taking them back to Regent's Park.

As the story begins, an old street agent named Dickie Bow is found dead on a bus near Oxford. Lamb figures out that is murder and that it's connected with a Cold War Russian spy named Alexander Popov––who may be real or may be a fiction created by MI5 back in the day. Nobody at Regent's Park would want to be bothered with this, Lamb thinks. They're far too busy spying and conducting disinformation campaigns on each other; probably not all that interested in some washed-up low-level stringer agent from a war they've all but forgotten. Lamb harnesses all the Slow Horses to work on the case; all, that is, except for the two who get a call from the Park to provide protection to a visiting Russian oil baron, Arkady Pushkin, while he's in London for some high-profile meetings and possible recruitment by the Park.

Did you notice that Alexander Popov and Arkady Pashkin have the same initials? One of the Slow Horses, Catherine Standish, does, and that worries her. At first, Lamb is dismissive: "Give me a break. I've got the same initials as . . . Jesus Lhrist, but I don't go on about it. This isn't an Agatha Christie." You'd better believe it isn't an Agatha Christie, and Lamb's crudity isn't the half of it. As Catherine's suspicions ferment, the plot bubbles with sleeper spies, Russian gangsters, riot in the streets, guns, explosions and mayhem in London's newest, loftiest skyscraper.

It can be a little difficult at times to keep all the Slow Horses straight, and the plot loses a bit of steam in the middle, but get past this and enjoy Herron's writing. It's full of style and cynical humor, and the last third has all the punch-your-lights-out action of a movie thriller––though the Slow Horses' nonexistent budget means that chases are on foot or bicycle, and the weaponry is in short supply.

Dead Lions will be published on May 7, 2013 by Soho Crime. There is plenty of time before then to read Slow Horses, Herron's introduction to the Slough House crew, which was a finalist for the Crime Writers Association Steel Dagger Award in 2010. And maybe I'll also read his Zoë Boehm series: Down Cemetery Road, The Last Voice You Hear, Why We Die and Smoke & Whispers.

Dead Lions reminded me of just how effective and dangerous––not to mention entertaining––intelligence agency castoffs can be. If that piques your interest, you might try Bob Cook's Disorderly Elements, featuring the mole-hunting exploits of Michael Wyman, laid off from MI6 with no pension and a baby on the way; or Paper Chase, a wicked caper about four retired agents who decide to get back at the current crop of MI6 whippersnappers who have the bad manners to issue them written orders not to write any memoirs of their intelligence service.

Or how about Brian Garfield's Hopscotch, in which a 25-year CIA agent is booted out and, missing the thrills of the job, decides to threaten to expose all he knows about the Cold War powers' secrets, for the pure adrenaline-pumping pleasure of getting them all to chase after him? The film adaptation of the book is a hoot, too, and features the perversely charismatic pairing of Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson. For sheer, giddy detour, frolic, hubbub and cartoonishly violent uproar involving former agents, it's hard to beat the movie RED, with Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and Mary-Louise Parker.

Note: I received a publisher's review copy of Dead Lions. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads and other reviewing sites under my user names there.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

La Mala Vita

Snow Drops
At first it was just the snowdrops that were no-shows. Then the crocuses were missing in action. I became concerned when the King Alfreds came down with the yellow flu and only a few raised their heads to do the job of heralding spring. In turn, the Ice Follies were AWOL, although my neighbor had plenty, but the whole thing became more official when I read that the DC Cherry Blossoms were going to be clocking in late as well. This problem seems to be a cause for concern in other areas, too. What has happened to spring? Is something holding Persephone back in the underworld? Or is it something else?

King Alfred Daffodil
The experts have answers for everything but I ask you––is it really fair to blame our troubles on a little groundhog or even a little boy, "El Nino"?

Almost everyone is after Punxsutawney Phil's head after his abysmal flawed prediction of an early spring, and an Ohio prosecutor has taken action says the Washington Post. Others are also suggesting that Phil look for another job. But where could he find a similar occupation that would keep him burrowing underground?

Gina Falcone also has an occupation that keeps her amidst dirt, darkness and death. Much of what she does is under ground. In These Dark Things, by Jan Merete Weiss, Gina opens the story as she goes about her business as a bone cleaner.

There is the custom in Naples, Italy of the second burial. Officially, this practice has ceased decades ago, but it is an ancient ritual going back to the Egyptians. Mourners wait for a year for the body of a loved one to decompose, and then dig up the bones and place them in a bone box for the second burial. Neapolitans still have deep-seated superstitions about the dead. Perhaps it was not surprising that people here actually dressed in black so as not to be mistaken by the dead as living souls ripe for haunting.

These days, the few remaining bone cleaners, like Gina, collect the bones from the grave keepers and put them to rest in certain Neapolitan churches where the rite is quietly tolerated. One of these was the Church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio. This centuries-old building has a deep crypt, down into which the faithful still climb to pray over bones and help their owners on their way out of purgatory and into heaven. One day, Gina encounters the relatively fresh body of young and beautiful Teresa Steiner, murdered and displayed.

Church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio
Since the victim is found in a cultural shrine, the case falls to Captain Natalia Monte of the Carabinieri. She is a member of an elite group within the national police. This is a position she has worked long and hard for, becoming one of the rare women to reach this rank and stature. As Natalia begins to investigate with her partner, Sgt. Pino, several lines of investigation open up. Teresa was a student at the local university and also worked for a local crime organization that had the concession for collecting donations from the hundreds of local shrines.

At this time, Naples is a city in turmoil for many reasons. The main one is that the streets are lined with piles of rotting garbage that hinder the passage of pedestrians as well as road traffic, and that are emitting a stomach-turning stench that affects everyone's daily life. To make matters worse, the public health department is reporting an increasing number of cholera cases.

The Camorra, the Naples local criminal organization that runs the garbage service, refuses to collect it or allow anyone else to collect it, because they are at odds with the Mayor, who is pushing a new state-of-the-art incinerator. Those few brave citizens who had the gumption to move the garbage from in front their place of business were soon experiencing their first burial.

Older than the Mafia, the Camorra origins go back to Spain's brutal rule of Naples. It is a much more vicious and ruthless organization than the newer crime syndicates. It has no rules and it penetrates every aspect of life in Napoli. The Sicilian Mafia had once granted family members and innocent civilians immunity. In the case of the Camorra, if an offender were "in the wind," relatives, wives, and even children are not exempt from wrath and vengeance.

I find the policing system in Italy complex. I get one impression of how things are from Salvo Montalbano in Sicily, and quite another from Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti. Both of these cops are in branches of the service other than the Carabinieri  The Carabinieri are a national force that came into being out of distrust, to make certain that no ministry would have all the military and police power.

To keep the police above the fray, members of the Carabineiri even have to get their spouses approved by their superiors after exhaustive background checks. Being friendly with anyone in the Camorra is grounds for dismissal. This was aside from the very real possibility that if there was a serious investigation into any criminal activities, the police and Carabinieri themselves were at risk, as were their families. The Camorra is actually like a second government, with its own internal rivalries, and it is here that the internal troubles spill out into the street. What a way to live!

Captain Natalia Monte walks a razor's edge in her job and in her life. Natalia, naturally, has had friends throughout her childhood who may now be associated in one way or another with the Camorra. Weiss really brings both Natalia and Pino to life. Pino's character is fleshed out well and is quite interesting. A Buddhist who rides a bicycle to work, Pino is a good balance to Natalia, who is a freer spirit, but who nonetheless is dogged and incorruptible. The next step either of them takes in this, or any other investigation, could be fatal.

Weiss portrays a Naples that should by all accounts be a beautiful place to live, if one is considering the weather, the architecture, the flowers and the food. But in La Bella Napoli, survival depends on walking a tightwire. I enjoyed the book tremendously, and hope to meet up with this intrepid duo again.

Meanwhile, even in Naples, nature survives without worrying about retribution. Here on the East Coast, I will look forward to the time when lilacs bloom in the dooryard.

Note: A version of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads and other reviewing sites under my user names there.

Ice Follies

Monday, March 25, 2013

International Waffle Day

Yes, folks, March 25th is International Waffle Day. Observing this holiday means eating waffles for breakfast or waffling about decisions or issues. Or reading books in which characters do these things.

Andrew Pyper: Lost Girls (2000). An astonishingly fun and thought-provoking read narrated by a cynical, cocaine-snorting, and Keats-spouting Bartholomew Crane of Toronto's criminal law firm Lyle, Gederow & Associate (better known as "Lie, Get 'Em Off & Associate"). Teacher Thom Tripp is accused of murdering two teenage girls, whose bodies haven't been found, and Crane travels to the decrepit North Country town of Murdoch to take on his defense. There, Crane's usual disregard of the truth and own little-remembered past get a workout as he investigates his client's bizarre story of the girls' disappearance at Lake St. Christopher.

This literary legal mystery/psychological suspense/thriller is Canadian lawyer Pyper's debut novel. It has a nice touch of the frightening supernatural and an entertainingly acerbic lawyer/sleuth. Lost Girls was a New York Times Notable Book and won the 2000 Edgar and Arthur Ellis Awards for Best First Novel.

Peter Guttridge: City of Dreadful Night (2010). Whether you'll enjoy this complex and compelling book, the first in Guttridge's Brighton series, all depends. Can you handle a plot's coincidence and the ambiguity of a tale left dangling at the end? If you can, and you like gritty British police procedurals set in the present, but that take a look at an unsolved real-life crime in the past, this may be something for you.

An armed police raid at a house in Brighton and Hove, a seaside resort in East Sussex, England, goes wrong, and four people are killed. Chief Constable Robert Watts is forced to resign, and his marriage ends when his affair with DS Sarah Gilchrist, who participated in the raid, becomes known. Despite his superiors' warnings to back off, Watts digs into the web of political and criminal relationships behind the botched raid and the deaths in its aftermath. Meanwhile, a diary related to an unclosed 1934 case, in which parts of a woman's body were discovered in trunks left at Brighton railroad stations, surfaces and may involve Watts's father, a former cop, and the father of Watts's old friend and government fixer, William Simpson. Helping Watts investigate are DS Gilchrist; a young reporter named Kate Simpson, who is William Simpson's daughter; and James Tingley, Watts's old MI5 friend. I'm looking forward to seeing these characters again in the next series book, 2011's The Last King of Brighton.

Rex Stout: Too Many Women (1947). Private eye extraordinaire Nero Wolfe considers Archie Goodwin an expert on young women. So when the president of Naylor-Kerr, Inc. asks Wolfe to investigate rumors about Wally Moore's hit-and-run death that are distracting his employees, Wolfe sends Archie to work undercover as an efficiency expert in the engineering firm's warehouse, which is full of beautiful young women. Although Archie goes through these obstructive women like a dolphin goes through waves, Wolfe doesn't decide to close the investigation before several more people die. It's an enjoyable mystery, as well as an interesting look at women in the post-WWII workforce.

Stout's Nero Wolfe books form an utterly charming traditional series, a slice of Americana set from its beginning in 1934 with Fer-de-Lance, to its conclusion, A Family Affair, in 1975. (An omnibus of earlier novellas, Death Times Three, was published in 1985.) Its main characters––Nero Wolfe, a gourmet food-, books-, and orchids-loving brainiac of a detective who refuses to leave his Manhattan brownstone on business, and Archie Goodwin, his competent right-hand man of action––are supported by a great cast of regulars who include Wolfe's household help, several New York City cops, a band of self-employed detectives hired by Wolfe, the doctor next door, and Archie's lovely inamorata, Lily Rowan. Stout supposedly published his first drafts, and the writing has a casual elegance and spontaneity that's fun to read.

Philipp Meyer: American Rust (2009). Sister Mary Murderous had no sooner reminded me of this book when I saw Meyer's The Son appear on Publishers Weekly's list of most anticipated books for Spring 2013. I'm not waffling when I say this: American Rust is wonderful.

It's set in the same economically devastated Pennsylvania country as K. C. Constantine's first-rate Mario Balzic series (see Maltese Condor's review of Constantine's The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes here). Buell's steel mill is shuttered, and many people have moved away. Isaac English and his older sister, Lee, were the smartest kids in their high school. When Lee goes to Yale, Isaac is left to take care of their disabled father. Now Lee is married and gone for good, and Isaac is desperate to leave Buell for his dream of studying astrophysics in California. Early one morning, Isaac packs his books into a backpack, robs his father's desk of $4,000, and walks to the house of his best friend Billy Poe. Billy is a none-too-smart, hot-tempered ex-high school football star on probation for assault. The two set out on foot. A chance meeting with transients in an abandoned factory where Isaac and Billy take shelter from a snowstorm leaves a man dead and Isaac's dream in pieces.

Meyer has been compared to John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, and William Faulkner. American Rust is about the unraveling of the American Dream. With beautiful prose, Meyer examines the price of loyalty and the constrained choices suffered by the working class. The book's characters––especially Isaac; Billy's self-sacrificing mother Grace, who earns minimum wage sewing wedding dresses for the wealthy and has her own dreams of returning to college; and Grace's lover, the sheriff––are three-dimensional enough to break your heart.

Lachlan Smith: Bear Is Broken (2013, Mysterious Press/Grove). Leo Maxwell has just received notice that he passed the California bar exam. He hopes the days of being called "Monkey Boy" by his 12-years-older brother, Teddy, are now a thing of the past. Teddy hasn't even congratulated Leo when they walk into a San Francisco restaurant to have lunch before closing arguments in one of Teddy's trial cases. Teddy is a highly successful criminal defense attorney, beloved by San Francisco's criminal class, but reviled by its cops and prosecutors, who insist that his success must be based on bribes and perjury. Leo and Teddy are waiting for their order when someone walks up behind Leo, shoots Teddy in the head, and disappears into a waiting car. While Teddy lies in a coma, Leo tries to understand his enigmatic brother, who was responsible for him after their mother died when Leo was 10 years old. Just how much of a rogue is Teddy? Leo now deals with Teddy's ex-wife, investigator, and clients. He also decides he can't trust the cops to adequately pursue the attempted murderer, so he will investigate himself. Leo opens Pandora's box.

Like Canadian writer Andrew Pyper, Lachlan Smith is a lawyer, and following his legal sleuth in the courtroom and in his sleuthing is enlightening as well as entertaining. Bear Is Broken is much less literary than Pyper's Lost Girls, and Leo is much less cynical than Pyper's Barth Crane, but both books involve a young lawyer's coming of age and evoke a tragic past. In this debut novel, Smith writes with unusual clarity and assurance as Leo shuffles a deck of likely suspects and plays a game of Solitaire. Smith slows the denouement a bit with a few too many details, but this by no means spoils the book's worth. I really liked it for its close and compassionate look at the tragic consequences of crime and at a San Francisco attorney who learns about himself and the nature of family loyalties. I'm happy that this is the first book of a proposed series.

On this important day, when we honor waffles and waffling, especially in crime fiction, be sure to get your fill of both. You may need to decline a second serving of breakfast, but there's nothing to stop you from being a glutton in your reading.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Review of Philip Kerr's A Man Without Breath

A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr

It's 1943, and Bernie Gunther, former Berlin homicide cop, is now an investigator for the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau. Yep, you read those last four words right. During World War II, there actually was a German organization for investigating war crimes. Bernie, however, with all the cynicism and black humor of a Berliner, is keenly aware of the absurdity of the Bureau's practice of turning a blind eye to the systematic torture and murder of Jews, Gypsies, communists, Slavs, homosexuals and other designated enemies of the Reich. Instead, the Bureau focuses on investigating war crimes by the Allies and, occasionally, one-off criminal acts by German soldiers––like rape, murder and torture committed without benefit of an officer's order.

Bernie is sent to Smolensk, then precariously held by the Germans, when corpses are discovered buried in the nearby Katyń Forest. Those bodies turn out to be Polish army officers, executed by a shot to the back of the head, and the more the German troops dig in the forest, the more bodies they find.

Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (whom Bernie likes to call "Mahatma Propagandhi") spots a potential publicity coup: show the world that this massacre was perpetrated by the Soviets and drive a wedge between the democratic Allies and the USSR. Goebbels orders Bernie to coordinate an international commission's visit to Smolensk to witness the digging and autopsies and, of course, to help the publicity along.

Bernie's workload becomes heavier when two German soldiers are brutally murdered late one night after a visit to the local brothel in Smolensk, and other murders follow. Bernie's various investigations force him into contact with a number of Wehrmacht officers, nearly all of whom are aristocrats and seem to be related by blood, marriage or social connection. This is a double whammy for Bernie, who dislikes both military authority and class superiority. Naturally, he refuses to show any deference to the officers, even including those whom he figures out are part of the various plots to assassinate Hitler.

Bernie's insubordination and wisecracks have a tendency to make the local command less than cooperative with his investigations; not that this is a new phenomenon for Bernie. After knowing him only a couple of days, one member of the visiting committee says: "Trouble is what defines you, Gunther. Without trouble you have no meaning." True, but I like Gunther's own view of himself: "[F]or the last ten years[,] [t]here's hardly been a day when I haven't asked myself if I could live under a regime I neither understood nor desired. . . . For now, being a policeman seems like the only right thing I can do."

This is what the Bernie Gunther series is all about. Philip Kerr is a master at portraying the flawed hero doing the best he can in a corrupt and perverted time and place. And you sure can't get much more corrupt and perverted than Nazi Germany and World War II.

During this now nine-volume series, Kerr puts Bernie at ground zero at some of the notorious landmarks of the time. In this book, there are several, including the discovery of the Katyń Forest Massacre, a real event in which the Soviet NKVD killed over 14,000 Polish military officers as part of its "decapitation" policy, which systematically obliterated those who might lead resistance against them, including aristocrats, intellectuals and military elites. Kerr also includes references to the Gleiwitz Incident, the faked Polish attack on a German radio station, which the Nazis devised to justify their 1939 invasion of Poland; the Rosenstrasse protest, which I describe in a historical note below; some of the previously-mentioned officer class's attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler; and the horrific medical experiments on communists carried out by fascist doctors in Civil War-era Spain.

Dramatization of the Rosenstrasse Protest
I read a lot of World War II fiction, and a common mistake is for the author to put every bit of his or her
research on the page, which often kills the pace and flavor of the story. Having read all of the Bernie Gunther series, I can say that Philip Kerr never makes that mistake. His knowledge of World War II history is prodigious, and he works it seamlessly into his compelling fictional stories. Just read the Author's Note at the end of the book and marvel at all the real events and characters he's blended into this story without the least scent of a musty textbook creeping in.

I recommend A Man Without Breath to anyone who enjoys World War II fiction or books about characters trapped in morally compromising circumstances.  The book will be published in the US by Putnam on April 16. (I read the UK edition, which was published by Quercus on March 14.)

Historical Note: An intriguing event Kerr describes is the Rosenstrasse protest. In March 1943, the Nazis rounded up the last 10,000 Jews left in Berlin (at least those not in hiding), with the intent to transport them and declare Berlin judenfrei. About 1700 of these, the ones who were married to Aryans, were separated and placed in temporary holding in the Jewish community center building on Rosenstrasse. For a week, the wives and families of the Rosenstrasse prisoners demonstrated outside, loudly demanding the release of their loved ones, despite SS soldiers' threats to arrest and even shoot the demonstrators. Amazingly, at the end of the week, the prisoners were released, by Goebbels' order, and nearly all of them survived the war.

This event shows the sensitivity of the regime to bad publicity and forces us to ask what horrors might have been avoided if only the German people had risen up against Nazi actions earlier. For a thorough and fascinating history of the Rosenstrasse protest, I recommend Nathan Stoltzfus's Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany.

Note: Versions of this review may appear on Goodreads, Amazon and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Review of Ken Perenyi's Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger

Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger
by Ken Perenyi

For over 30 years, Ken Perenyi, beatnik, thief, and master forger, has been producing copies of paintings by American and British artists so accurate in every detail that they have been accepted as authentic and sold by major galleries and auction houses in both countries. The statute of limitations now having expired on any presumptive illegalities by Mr. Perenyi, he has decided to share his remarkable story with the world. The result is a breezy and unapologetic tour through the New York art scene of the late 1960s and 1970s, along with enough hair-raising tales to give any buyer of fine art pause before shelling out serious money for a painting.

As a teenager in Palisades Park, New Jersey, in the late 1960s, Ken was a slacker, an indifferent student whose only interest in painting was decorating the cars he painstakingly rebuilt to cruise the streets with his friends. A chance meeting with a group of hippie artists and low-level mobsters who lived in an old building nicknamed "The Castle" introduced him to an entirely different lifestyle. Along with thousands of his generation, he "tuned in, turned on, and dropped out."

Body Painting
Tom Daly, the originator of psychedelic body painting, introduced him to Max's Kansas City, the nightclub in 1970s New York for the arty set, where Perenyi rubbed shoulders with artists like Peter Max and Andy Warhol and performers like David Bowie and Alice Cooper. Sex, drugs and intense conversation were very much on the menu, and the star-struck boy from Jersey, who wasn't even old enough to order a drink, drank it all in.

His artist friends, horrified at his ignorance, began dragging him to museums and galleries, where he first became fascinated with the work of the artists he would later copy so successfully. From watching Daly paint, he learned that the creation of a work of art is a painstaking process, not some undefinable inspirational bolt from the blue. He was fascinated by the process, and for the first time in his life began to study seriously, although he never took a formal painting or design course. His indifferent degree from a third-rate trade school and the draft classification he managed to obtain––1Y (physically or psychologically unfit)––ensured that he was virtually unemployable for any meaningful work, so he more or less drifted into becoming a painter.

Ken Perenyi after John Peto
His early years in New York read like the often amusing story of any struggling unsuccessful artist, except that the connections Perenyi had forged provided entrée into the circles of the rich and scandalous of the era. In addition to producing his own abstract paintings, he continued to study by painstakingly copying the works of past masters. His own original work was not selling well, and he was financially desperate. When his roommate shoved a biography of Han van Meegeren, the infamous World War II art forger, into his hands and said "Read this," a new career was born.

Artists reuse techniques and images that have worked for them again and again, and Perenyi has an uncanny ability to analyze and imitate these techniques. In his heyday, he could paint several pictures in the style of different artists in the same week. He obligingly shares with the reader how he ages his paintings, often starting with drawer bottoms and panels from 18th or 19th century junk furniture. A restorer for whom he worked for a few years taught him techniques for aging a painting, and a framer whose hand-carved frames were indistinguishable from antiques gave him the secret of an old gesso underpainting solution that simulated the aged cracks that often appear in old paintings. Unlike John Drew and painter John Myatt in Salisbury and Sujo's exposé Provenance, Perenyi never attempted to provide a history for his paintings; he let his work speak for itself. It is apparently that good, and that lack of a false provenance for his work may be what ultimately saved him from criminal prosecution.

Ken Perenyi after James Seymour
The FBI gathered evidence against him for years but could never build a sufficient case, and has finally sealed his file. Imagine the furor in the art world if literally thousands of paintings, many sold by reputable galleries and auction houses and authenticated by experts, were proved to be Perenyi forgeries! Today, visitors to his art gallery in Madeira Beach can buy his exquisite copies, some for only a few thousand dollars. His prices may rise, though, after publication of this book, which the London Guardian reports has been optioned for film by Ron Howard. Perenyi's website even asks "Why spend millions at Christie's and Sotheby's?" and states unequivocally that all the paintings he offers for sale are his own work.

Ken Perenyi after Martin Johnson Heade
Caveat Emptor does not pretend to be great literature. It is written in an engaging conversational style that must make the author a very amusing dinner guest. Perenyi is in no way remorseful or apologetic toward those who may have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for his forgeries. His sense of responsibility is entirely to the artists whose work he reproduced or modified. If he has captured their techniques and visions and even carried them forward as they would have, he is satisfied with what he has accomplished. His is a stringent, but very curious and limited, code of ethics, bearing little relation to ordinary morality or legality.

Representative Works by Ken Perenyi
While Perenyi goes into great detail of how he worked and who he knew, we really learn very little of his personal life. Even his sexuality is ambiguous; while he mentions brief relations with many women, his long-term partners are always men. A story in The St. Petersburg Times says that he currently lives with a daughter, but she appears nowhere in the book. In the end, I was both fascinated and horrified by Caveat Emptor, and dissatisfied that it ended without resolution for the reader of this complicated character with his unquestionable genius and his almost nonexistent sense of ethics. And perhaps that is just what the author intended.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Monday Monday, Can't Trust That Day

Monday Monday, can't trust that day.

The Mamas and the Papas had that lyric right. Those of us working a traditional Monday-to-Friday job face Monday knowing the rest of the work week will drag on forever and ever. It helps if you have great work colleagues and love your job, like I do, but still. Work is work. Some people, including the poor folks below, don't have it easy.

Gerald Seymour: A Deniable Death (2013). This is a very remarkable book of espionage published earlier this year by St. Martin's Press. If you like your spies to do a lot of running around, this isn't for you. But if you hunger for the minute details of planning and executing an intricate spy mission and want complicated and believable characters, don't miss this one.

A misdirected sneeze provides enough DNA to identify the Engineer, who designs and oversees the manufacture of many of the improvised explosive devices that kill or maim Allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Engineer lives just over the border from Iraq in Iran. His beloved wife heads a committee in charge of sweeping Iran of land mines. When she is diagnosed with a brain tumor, the Engineer insists that the Iranian government make plans for her to receive treatment at a top-notch medical facility out of the country. MI6 and their intelligence Cousin (the US) and Friend (the Israelis) get a whiff of this plan and decide it presents a unique opportunity to assassinate the Engineer. If any of the Allied forces' spies are caught, they will be disavowed. If they are successful in their mission, the complicity of the Allied forces' governments will be denied. The question that needs an answer immediately: what facility in what country are the Engineer and his wife headed for?

To find out, MI6 sends middle-aged military surveillance expert Joe "Foxy" Foulkes and a young but gifted police officer, Danny "Badger" Baxter, to the marsh near the Engineer's family home in Iran. Badger plants microphones in the house and in the marsh, so conversations inside or outside the house can be monitored by Foxy, who is familiar with Farsi. The two men, who must lie quietly pressed up against each other for day after excruciating day, dislike each other intensely. They only have so much time before the couple leaves; before they are discovered by the Engineer's guard, who is obsessed with searching the marsh with binoculars, looking for an endangered bird; and before their support team, fending off murderous and thieving marsh dwellers over the border in Iraq, must abandon them and run away. All of these characters have reasons to agonize about the worthiness of their mission and to question their own and others' loyalties. The Iranian guard, Engineer and Engineer's wife are as human as the Allied forces characters. The marsh, home to birds, wild pigs, rodents and insects, is vividly presented. So are the horrible ordeals of the waiting and hiding Foxy and Badger and their endangered support team in Iraq. The suspense is amazing and builds to a fitting conclusion.

Secret Intelligence Service building in London
I found this book, which honors the men and women who secretly risk their lives or toil anonymously behind the scenes to serve their countries, so good that I returned the library book and bought my own copy.

April Smith: North of Montana (1994) and Judas Horse (2008). Last year, Sister Mary complained here about the scarcity of good, strong, sassy women in fictional crime. Sister, meet FBI Agent Ana Grey. Although Ana is short on wisecracks, she has goodness and strength in spades. Unfortunately, Ana suffers from an overabundance of obnoxious FBI colleagues.

In Santa Monica, California, the very rich neighborhoods are separated from the less rich by Montana Avenue. When Ana's mother died, Ana moved from the less wealthy side of the city to live with her grandfather, a retired Santa Monica cop, in a ritzy neighborhood. North of Montana, the series debut, finds Ana's climb up the FBI ladder interrupted by a jealous superior, who assigns her to investigate a local doctor. He has been accused by an aging Hollywood star of addicting her to drugs and is suspected in the death of one of his employees, Violeta Alvarado, who is possibly Ana's relative. This book is beautifully written suspense in which author Smith, an Emmy Award-winning screenwriter, compares the haves and have-nots of a California city and forces Ana to reassess her family memories.

Judas Horse involves Ana's return to work after a shooting. She is sent to the FBI's undercover school to prepare her for infiltrating a Portland, Oregon animal rights group that is suspected of involvement in an FBI agent's murder. Once in Oregon, Ana finds herself sympathizing with the goals of the group and is drawn to some of its members, even though she is determined to find the truth behind the murder. She is attracted to the charismatic group leader, Julius Emerson Phelps, but she knows she can't trust him. She isn't sure whether she can trust her own FBI liaison team or the assistant FBI director, whose Portland family has powerful corporate and political connections. The strains of undercover work and conflicted professional and personal loyalties that cross sides are handled very well in this book, the third of the series.

Emma Lathen: Pick Up Sticks (1970). Tall, silver-haired Wall Street investment banker John Putnam Thatcher escapes the Sloan Guaranty Trust to go hiking on the Appalachian Trail. (No, this is not code for flying to Argentina to canoodle with his mistress like the ex-governor of South Carolina.) Thatcher's companion on the Trail, a local named Henry Morland, discovers a body and is immediately suspected by the state police, while Thatcher turns his attention to a pair of Boston financiers' real estate dealings.

This is one of my favorite traditional mystery series. The books always focus on a specific business interest of a Sloan client. Discussions among the bank's employees and conversations between Thatcher and the clients make the financial dealings clear. It's very entertaining for me to sit in on a business deal, even if it's fictional. The authors (in reality, Martha Henissart and Mary J. Latsis are Emma Lathen) write with charm and an appreciation for irony as they exhibit how a business works. Thatcher has a dry sense of humor and is never anything less than ethical. In other words, the opposite of how the Wall Street banker of today is commonly perceived.

Monday is almost over. For the rest of my work week, I'm thankful I don't have to face lying thigh to thigh in a marsh with a fellow worker, wonder about my own or my colleagues' loyalties or escape the relentless pressures of a bank's employees. I hope the rest of your week goes well, too.