In The Bernini Bust, a privately owned Los Angeles museum has just made two unusual purchases a painting that doesnt really fit into the museums collection, from lovable but rather bumbling dealer Jonathan Argyll, and an assortment of half-rate (and possibly fake) classical sculpture from a known-to-be-crooked dealer. However, it soon turns out that the latter dealer was tricked into smuggling a valuble marble bust by the famous Bernini out of Italy (which of course means that Flavia, from the Art Crimes squad in Italy gets called in) a bust that possibly he had some connection to in the past. However, the museums owner-patron soon turns up murdered right before making a big announcement, and the shady dealer goes missing the conclusions seem obvious.. but, of course, theyre not. This installment does suffer for being set in L.A. rather that the more colorful settings of Europe that Pears prefers, and I felt that Jonathan seemed a little too bumbling in this one.
A small paperback that sat on my bookshelf, completely overlooked for years. I wish I had gotten to it sooner, because it's a delightful mystery! The pacing is quick, the characters are fun, and you are bound to pick up a few interesting art-related facts while piecing together all the clues.
First Line: Jonathan Argyll lay contentedly on a large slab of Carrara marble, soaking up the mid-morning sun, smoking a cigarette and considering the infinite variety of life.
Hapless art dealer Jonathan Argyll has delivered a Titian painting to the Moresby Museum in Santa Monica, California, and expects payment momentarily. While he's waiting he's been observing, and what he's seen makes him glad he's not connected to the private museum. The Moresby Museum has no focus, due to the whims of its billionaire owner. The curator has grandiose plans for expansion, and the billionaire's family members seem to be spending most of their time trying to plot the museum's demise, since it's cutting into their inheritance.
At a party to celebrate the acquisition of a Bernini statue,the billionaire is killed, and the art dealer thought to have brought the Bernini statue with him from Italy is the prime suspect. However, Argyll knows di Souza and doesn't think he's capable of murder. After thinking over the entire situation, he makes a phone call to Italy and asks for the help of Flavia di Stefano of the Italian National Art Theft Squad.
Ever since I was a teenager and watched each week's episode of It Takes a Thief, I've had a weakness for jewel and art thieves. (Well, at least as portrayed by Robert Wagner and Fred Astaire!) Part of the charm of Pears' Art History series for me is the convoluted plot when someone has found a treasure, gets possession of it, and then tries to get it home free. The author's background in journalism and art history is perfect fodder for his series.
When I'm not learning interesting tidbits about art history, I'm learning about the culture of Italy-- a country that's always been high on the list of places I must visit.
"It was his own fault; he crossed the wide boulevard which led past the Moresby and on to his hotel in the cavalier fashion he had adopted for dealing with Roman traffic, and discovered that drivers in California, while generally slower, are not nearly as accurate as their Italian counterparts. A Roman shaves past your legs and makes your trousers billow in the wind but disappears over the horizon with a triumphant hooting of the horn, leaving no real damage behind. The driver of this particular vehicle either had clear homicidal tendencies or little skill; he flashed past, saw Argyll, blew his horn and swerved at only the last moment, very nearly consigning Argyll to the hereafter in the process."
And if convoluted plots, art history and culture weren't enough, there are Pears' marvelous characters. The Englishman, Jonathan Argyll is an endearing bumbler who tends to see himself as Superman's younger athletic brother. Flavia di Stefano of the Art Theft Squad is extremely self-assured, very intelligent, and uses sarcasm to good effect. It's fun to watch these two play off each other.
Whenever I pick up one of Iain Pears' Art History mysteries, I know an intelligent, entertaining read is awaiting me.
The third installment in the Jonathan Argyll/Flavia di Stefano art investigations is my favorite to date. It takes place in Los Angeles and author Pears' observations about that city add the most humorous bits to the story. The art caper, involving a marble bust of Pope Pius V that may or may not be fake, is clever and made more interesting with details of the mess the Italian art world was in following WWII. The Bernini mystery is complicated by the murder of a filthy rich and most unpleasant American who could have been killed by any one of the assembled international cast of characters. If you enjoy art history and detective yarns, add this to the top of your to-be-read pile.
The intricacies of Italian life, art history & the licit & illicit trade in masterworks is all offered in this great read. The author is an art historian so his asides & knowledge of the art world make it a wonderful adventure.
Red Herring Art History Mystery. Protagonists are refreshingly human.
From the back of the book: Jonathan Argyll has finally done something right...he's sold an overpriced Titian to a well-endowed museum in L. A. Not bad for an art dealer who thinks selling paintings is the most unpleasant part of his job. And never mind that the Moresby Museum is known more for tackiness than for taste. Argyll's just anxious for the deal to be done...and he's come to L. A. to drop off the painting and pick up the check. But it turns out there are a few devils loose in the City of Angels. Like the sneaky art dealer whom Argyll suspects of smuggling a Bernini bust out of Italy. And the museum's imperious owner, who's got a lot more money than sense...and is murdered right before both the smuggler and the bust disappear..
See review for the entire series under "The Immaculate Deception" by the same author.