by Nina Wachsman
Art. Passion. Poison.
One can lead to the other—at least in the hands of a mystery writer. In my novel set in the seventeenth century, The Gallery of Beauties, an artist’s commission to paint the portraits of the most beautiful women in Venice stirs dangerous passions and leads to murder.
Art can be the foundation for a great mystery. In Peter Lovesey’s recent entry to the Peter Diamond series, Diamond and the Eye, a body found in an antique sarcophagus and the disappearance of the antique dealer is the start of the mystery, while what he may have discovered in an antiques roadshow drives the plot. Greed and ambition, stirred by the mysterious discovery, result in several murder attempts and confound Diamond’s investigation.
In Connie Berry’s Edgar-nominated latest, The Shadow of Memory, antiques dealer Kate Hamilton is challenged to determine if a painting from a former posh Victorian asylum is an authentic Dutch masterpiece. The painting’s provenance is tied to the murder of an old flame of Kate’s friend Vivian, and Kate fears Vivian may have become the murderer’s next target. The painting raises the stakes for the futures of Kate, Vivian and the murderer.
The artist can be an interesting amateur sleuth in a mystery novel. In Death in Delft, by Graham Brack, the painter, Vermeer, sketches the discovery of the body, and helps the main character investigate the death and disappearances of several young girls. In Philip Kerr’s last Bernie Gunther novel, Metropolis, Gunther learns that murder has become the subject of an art movement, Lustmord, or “lust murders” which focused on the brutal, sexual-tinged serial killings of women and prostitutes in 1930s Berlin.Having taken up the brush myself, I can attest to some sort of mystical, out-of-body experience that sometimes surfaces as an artist creates. Emotions and senses become directly connected to one’s hands, releasing the unconscious, allowing the artist to bring something to life that was buried deep inside.
I tapped into my experience in The Gallery of Beauties, with the portrait artist’s description of his connection to his subjects as he paints them. Diana, the rabbi’s daughter, has studied Jewish mysticism and believes she can experience a transference of souls when the artist will paint her portrait. Soon, the portraits become the centerpiece of the plots of powerful men, as twisty as the narrow passageways of Venice, leaving the courtesan and the rabbi’s daughter to investigate the murders before they become the next victims.
One of my favorite stories with art as the centerpiece is The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s classic, where a work of art actually absorbs the crimes of its subject. It was my inspiration for “The Assassin’s Portrait”, my short story published in the August 2022 issue of Mystery Magazine, about a portrait painter who is commissioned not only to paint her subjects but to assassinate them.
Real-life crimes often inspire art mysteries. The theft of the Mona Lisa, the massive art heist at the Isabelle Gardner museum, art stolen by the Nazis, and the defacing of classic artworks have all been stories retold by mystery writers. Professional affiliations and expertise can provide the insight and authenticity to these stories. Author Lane Stone has a certification in antiquities theft and art crime, which comes through in her recent art-crime thriller, The Collector, and Connie Berry comes from a family of antiques dealers.
You don’t need to paint or draw or be a collector to understand the emotional connection to a work of art. Whether ancient or modern, a work of art can inspire greed, passion, pride or lust. Fodder for any mystery writer who can decide how to use it.
Other Books Mentioned:
Diamond and the Eye by Peter Lovesey, Book 20/21; Peter Diamond Mysteries peterlovesey.com
The Shadow of Memory by Connie Berry, Kate Hamilton Mysteries #4 connieberry.com
The Collector by Lane Stone; The Big Picture Trilogy Book 1 lanestonebooks.com
Death in Delft by Graham Bracht; Master Mercurious Mystery #1 historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/death-in-delft-master-mercurius-mysteries
The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde; simonandschuster.com/books/The-Picture-of-Dorian-Gray/Oscar-Wilde
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A very interesting article! I do agree that works of art can be a great inspiration for writers. I also like to paint. Your historical mystery sounds like an excellent read. Best wishes.