Monday, May 11, 2009

It Takes A Thief...

Book Review catch a thief! That is the conclusion of the reader who takes the time to enjoy this wonderful debut novel by Noah Charney. The Art Thief (Washington Square Press, 2007) opens in Italy where a Caravaggio painting disappears from where it has hung for centuries over an altar in a local church. While the caribinieri investigate, the scene switches to Paris. There a young woman is incensed that Christie's catalog indicates they will auction what appears to be an original painting that her employer, The Malevich Society, owns. When she discovers that the foundation's White on White by Malevich is missing from their vault, she flies to London.  At the auction, what appears to be the Malevich painting, but not the one featured in the catalog, is purchased by the National Gallery of Modern Art. Before the ink on the delivery sheet can dry, the painting is stolen from the Museum. But is it the same painting that was sold at Christie's? And is that the same painting that is missing from the The Malevich Society's vault? And what does the Caravaggio have to do with the Malevich?

Professor Simon Barrow, leading students through the National Gallery, instructs them and the reader on the fascinating study of iconography.  This professor is bombastic and enthusiastic, and his knowledge is useful. In fact, he is later kidnapped in order to authenticate . . . or not . . . the Caravaggio.  Another character, Gabriel Coffin, an urbane man who makes his living by lecturing on art theft teaches us about Modern Art, and about the means by which art pieces disappear from the public eye. He is reminiscent of David Niven's character, the Phantom, in The Pink Panther. The Parisian investigator, Bizot, accompanied by his friend Lesgourges, exudes a whiff of a Nero Wolfe (especially at the table). And finally, the best character, Scotland Yard Inspector Harry Wickenden, reminded this reader of the 70's TV series character Columbo played by Peter Falk.

It is rare that a first novel educates, fascinates, confuses and makes the reader laugh out loud. This one does and whets the appetite for more of its kind. It is even worth re-reading, a rarity for this reviewer. If you take it for a beach read, make sure the kids are well supervised because you will be heads down trying to unravel the mystery.

So why is this book featured on the Friends of Reston Regional Library website? Because the blogger picked it up at the recent Semi-Annual Used Book Sale for ONE DOLLAR! That's right, it is a trade paperback, so a dollar gave the reader a trip to the three major European capitals, wonderful characters to laugh at and with, and an escape from the rain last week in Northern Virginia. That's a pretty good deal for $1.

So mark your calendars for the last weekend in September and make your list!


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