His Paintings on the Wall*

One of the real pleasures of blogging is being inspired by other bloggers. And one source of inspiration for me is Moira’s excellent Clothes in Books. She’s always got thoughtful book reviews and discussions of fictional clothes, popular culture, and what they say about us. Recently, she did an interesting post on A.J. Cronin’s The Crusader’s Tomb, which is about a man who wants to be an artist.

Being an artist is not easy. Very few people – even talented people – make a real living from their art. And there are a lot of risks (forgery, theft, etc.) in the art world. Still and all, there are plenty of people who work hard in the field, and create memorable work.

Art’s woven through crime fiction, too. In fact, it’s there in so many crime novels that there’s only enough room in this post to mention a few examples of stories where visual art plays a role. There are many more if you include art such as ceramics/pottery, weaving, dance, drama, and so on.

Agatha Christie includes the world of visual art in several of her stories. For instance, in After the Funeral (and you thought I was going to mention Five Little Pigs, didn’t you, Christie fans?), we are introduced to Cora Abernethie Lansquenet, the youngest of the Abernethie siblings. Her older brother (and family patriarch), Richard, didn’t approve of Cora’s marriage to a little-known French artist, so there’s been a rift in the family. When Richard dies, Cora attends his funeral, and blurts out that he was murdered. At first, no-one takes her seriously. But when she is murdered the next day, the other family members begin to wonder if she was right. Family solicitor Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate. Poirot takes the case and begins to ask questions. He learns that Cora herself painted, and it turns out that art and painting play a role in the story.

In Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets word that an old friend of hers, famous artist Sally Love, is going to have a show at a local gallery. On the one hand, it’s a little unsettling since Joanne and Sally’s friendship ended when Sally abruptly left years earlier. On the other, Joanne would like to repair the friendship if that’s possible. So, she makes plans to go to the show, and she and Sally start talking again. Then, the gallery’s director, Clea Poole, is murdered. Things become especially awkward when Sally becomes a suspect. Joanne gets drawn into the case, and we learn something about the world of artists. Interestingly enough, slightly later in the series, Joanne adopts a daughter, Taylor, who turns out to be a very gifted artist. A few of the novels (The Gifted, for instance), explore Taylor’s development as an artist, and how she fits that gift into her life.

Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground introduces readers to American art enthusiast Thomas Murchison. He’s especially knowledgeable about the work of Philip Derwatt, a relatively unknown painter whom Murchison believes is sadly underrated. When he learns that some of Derwatt’s art is being handled by London’s Buckminster Gallery, he travels there to see the work. When he sees one particular painting, though, he gets concerned. It appears to have subtle but real differences from other Derwatt work, and Murchison notices it. He begins to suspect there’s something wrong, but then, Derwatt himself comes to London to reassure Murchison. Murchison is still not convinced, though, and he has every reason for doubt. The ‘Derwatt’ he met is actually Tom Ripley in disguise, and Murchison’s keen eye is about to ruin a very good scam Ripley and some friends are running. The real Derwatt died a few years earlier, but one of Ripley’s friends has been creating new ‘Derwatt’ paintings, and the Buckminster has been selling them. If Murchsion upsets this scheme, everything will fall apart. So, Ripley decides to solve the problem in his own way. As you can guess, though, things don’t go quite the way he plans…

Aaron Elkins’ Loot begins when Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call from his friend, pawn shop owner Samuel Pawlovsky. It seems that Pawlosvky just received a painting that he thinks might be valuable, and he wants Revere’s opinion. To Revere’s shock, the painting appears to be a priceless Velázquez that was taken by the Nazis for ‘safe keeping.’ Revere wants to check into the matter further, so he tells Pawlovsky that he’s going to do some research and will be back in a few hours. He wants to take the painting with him, but Pawlovsky won’t let the painting leave his shop. Despite his misgivings, Revere leaves to do his research. When he comes back, he finds that Pawlovsky has been murdered. Revere’s no cop, but he thinks that if he can trace the painting from the time it was taken until the time it ended up in the pawn shop, he can find out who the murderer is. And that’s exactly what he does. The result is an international adventure (and danger) that he hadn’t imagined.

There are, of course, plenty of other artists who figure in crime fiction. For instance, two of the characters in Louise Penny’s Three Pines series are Clara and Peter Morrow. Both are artists, although Peter is generally considered the truly talented one, at least at first. As the series goes on, Clara finds her voice as an artist, and develops herself to the point that she shows she has a real gift in her own right. Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair is an artist, too. He lives and works in New South Wales in the years between WW I and WW II. His group of close friends includes Clyde Watson Jones, who is also an artist, and Edna Higgins, who is a sculptor, model, and occasional actress. Among other things, the series offers an interesting look at how non-conformists such as Rowly and his friends fit into the larger society between the two world wars.

As you can see (but I’m sure you already knew!), art plays a big role in crime fiction. Thanks, Moira, for inspiring me to think about it! Now, treat yourself to a visit to Moira’s excellent blog.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me).