MYSTERY   READERS   JOURNAL             ART   MYSTERIES                 Volume  21, No. 1, Spring  2005

The  Journal  Of  Mystery  Readers  International                       





  • The Art of Mysteries by Marilyn MacGregor
  • Humor in the Art Mysteries of Nicholas Kilmer and Iain Pears by Mary Helen Becker
  • The Vermeer Veneer by Andrea J. Sward
  • The Art of Architectural Mysteries by Amy Navratil Ciccone



  • The Challenge of Authenticity by Ron Benrey
  • Life Is Short, Art Is Long by Lillian Stewart Carl
  • When There's Art, It's a Crime of Passion by J. Madison Davis
  • Writing the Play of Light and Shadow by Barry Ergang
  • A Patchwork of Words by Earlene Fowler
  • Why Rome? by David Hewson
  • Well-Mannered Art by Julie A. Hyzy
  • Is Art Useful? by Russell James
  • Affairs of the Art by Robert S. Levinson
  • Journey Across America by William Manchee
  • Those Who Can't, Teach by Sarah J. Mason
  • The Art in Question by Lise McClendon
  • The Da Vinci Code as Art Mystery? by Sharan Newman
  • Saturday Night Art and Other Ruminations at the Bar by Ann Parker
  • Eight Lessons I Learned While Writing an Art Mystery by Cheryl Ritzel
  • The Woeful Art of Mayhem by Hal and Mary Toliver
  • Georgia O'Keeffe at Lake George by Anne White



  • Mystery in Retrospect:  Reviews by Carol Harper, Robin Agnew, Walter Albert, Margaret Baken, Kathryn Lively, and Verna Suit
  • The Children's Hour:  Art Mysteries by Gay Toltl Kinman
  • In Short:  The Mystery of Art by Marvin Lachman
  • MRI Mayhem by Janet A. Rudolph
  • Letters to the Editor
  • From the Editor's Desk by Janet A. Rudolph



The  Vermeer  Veneer

by  Andrea J. Sward  (Huntington Beach, California)


   Jan (Johannes) Vermeer van Delft (1632 - 1675) is an artist who continues to resonate with people today.  His popularity has transcended the art world and has entered popular literature as well.  Three best-selling Vermeer-based novels attest to this:  John Bayley's The Red Hat (St. Martin's Press, 1998), Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue (MacAdam/Cage Publishing, 1999), and Tracy Chevalier's Girl With A Pearl Earring (Dutton Books, 2000).  However, it is mystery writers who have really adopted Vermeer, with no fewer than six entries in the field. 

   Why does Vermeer fascinate mystery writers?  One reason may be the mysteries surrounding Vermeer himself.  He produced less than 40 extant works.  Why would an artist of his caliber create so few paintings?  His paintings received little recognition during his lifetime and languished in obscurity until they were rediscovered in the 19th century -- 200 years after his death.  Why would an artist of his skill not have been revered in his time and have been forgotten for so long?  There are also mysteries surrounding the works themselves.  Many art authorities question if all of them were painted by Vermeer and attribution debates abound.  (In the 1930's, the notorious and flamboyant Vermeer forger Han van Meegeren added fuel to this fire.)  Lastly, Vermeer's painting The Concert is the focal point of a real-life mystery.  It was one of the works of art stolen from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.  Despite a five million dollar reward, no trace of the paintings has been found and few clues exist.


   It is curious that three of the six Vermeer mysteries are first novels and a fourth is the first book in a series.  When it comes to Vermeer, mystery authors do not save the best for last but instead put their best foot forward to create thought-provoking books that both delight and educate.  The six books are described below in chronological order. 


   Herbert Resnicow's The Gold Frame (St. Martin's Press, 1984) is the earliest of the Vermeer-based mysteries.   It was the third offering in the series featuring erudite sleuths Alexander and Norma Gold.  The Golds are hired by Daniel Belmont, a rich New York Museum owner who is obsessed by Vermeer.  Belmont met his wife Helen while both were admiring Vermeer's Girl With A Pearl Earring at The Mauritshuis in the Hague.  He was immediately drawn to this woman who was an exact twin of Vermeer's model.  Belmont has five Vermeers in his home, or does he?  As Alex exclaimed, "Either you are the world's greatest art thief or the world's greatest forger."  The works are actually copies by the museum's conservator.  A supposed Vermeer from a private collection surfaces and is available for purchase.  Belmont wants it for the museum because the model also resembles his late wife.  The Golds must determine if it is a Vermeer and if it is, is it a true Vermeer or a copy by the conservator?  The book contains accurate insights into Vermeer's techniques and identifying characteristics.  In addition, it captures the magic of Vermeer and how, like a Siren on the rocks, his paintings draw in viewers and refuse to let go.  It is an exceedingly well-constructed novel, as are all works by Resnicow.  This is probably attributable to Resnicow having been an engineer as well as a writer.  (A bit of trivia -- must be in the genes:  Mystery writers Herbert Resnicow and Carolyn Gold Heilbrun [who wrote under the pseudonym of Amanda Cross] are cousins.  Heilbrun mentions this in her memoir The Last Gift of Time.)  


   The Music Lesson by Yale professor Katharine Weber (Crown Publishing Group, 1998) is a beautifully written cross-over work -- part mystery, part novel, part literature.  The book is written in first-person by Patricia Dolan, an Art Reference Librarian at New York's Frick Museum.  Patricia is 41, divorced, mourning the death of her daughter, and numbly going through the motions of life.  When her distant cousin Mickey proposes she return with him to County Cork, Ireland, she embraces the chance for a fresh start.  Upon arriving, she realizes she was recruited by Mickey for her art expertise and not just to be the lover she has become.  Patricia finds herself in a remote Irish cottage with Vermeer's painting The Music Lesson that Mickey's IRA splinter group stole from "Betty Windsor's House" and intend to destroy.  The intricate, tension-filled plot keeps you guessing with its double-crosses and red herrings.  And, as one reviewer stated, "Even the most avid of mystery lovers will never foretell her rich surprise ending." 

   Much of The Music Lesson was drawn from real life.  Vermeer's The Music Lesson is in Queen Elizabeth's private collection and hangs in Buckingham Palace.  In the 1970's a group of paintings, including a Vermeer, was stolen by the IRA from Dublin's National Gallery of Ireland.  They were held for ransom in an isolated cottage rented by an Anglo-Irish woman.  This adds verisimilitude to an exquisitely crafted, quick-paced book.


   Nicholas Kilmer's books feature a triumvirate of main characters.  There is Clayton Reed, a Boston Brahmin art collector who is endowed with more money than sense.  Fred Taylor, who has been hired to acquire art works for Reed.  Molly Riley, a librarian and mother of two, who is Fred's love interest.  Molly's insightful intelligence and quick with help keep the books grounded.  Kilmer's first book Harmony in Flesh and Black (Henry Holt, 1995) involves the intriguing idea of finding a "lost" Vermeer.  (Since so few Vermeer paintings exist, a lost Vermeer is the art world's City of Gold, Fountain of Youth, Sasquatch, and Atlantis all rolled into one -- a legend everyone knows is false, but that all want to be true.)  A New England landscape by Martin Johnson Heade (1819 - 1904) of the Hudson River School is coming up for auction.  Fred is surprised Clayton would be interested in a fairly undistinguished painting.  Clayton confides that he suspects Heade painted his landscape over a Vermeer.  (Sometimes to avoid purchasing and preparing a canvas, artists will paint on top of a worthless painting.  In Heade's era, a Vermeer would have been considered worthless.)  Clayton sends Fred to obtain the landscape at auction.  At first glance, Fred's resume as a college dropout Vietnam Veteran would seem ill-suited to this task.  However, one learns from this series that skill in guerilla warfare is as necessary in the rarified air of the art world as it was in the jungles of Southeast Asia.  Fred's winning bid of $120,000 may be a lot for a Heade, but it is three zeroes shy of what a Vermeer would cost.  Kilmer masterfully weaves art history lessons throughout this book.  Not only do we learn about Vermeer, but many New England artists as well.  He guides the reader through an insider's view of the world of art collecting.  He also gives glimpses into the process of art research.  Combined with strong characters and intricate plotting, this book is a noteworthy debut novel.  Later books in the series did not disappoint. 

   Nicholas Kilmer is nearly as interesting as the books he writes.  First of all, he has the pedigree for art, being the grandson of noted American Impressionist Frederick Carl Frieseke.  (Kilmer curated a touring show of Frieske's paintings and authored the catalogue.)  Kilmer is also an artist.  He was on the faculty at Swain School of Design and rose to the rank of Dean.  After Swain was absorbed by the University of Massachusetts, Kilmer became unemployed.  This gave him the time to paint, to run a fine art gallery, and to write mystery novels.  For this we can thank the UofM.  We can also thank the Poisoned Pen Press for resurrecting and reissuing Kilmer's fascinating series. 


   Most readers are familiar with Aaron Elkins through his successful series featuring "the skeleton detective" forensic anthropologist Dr. Gideon Oliver.  In A Deceptive Clarity (Walker, 1987) Elkins introduces a new protagonist, Dr. Christopher Norgren.  Norgren is a museum curator who specializes in art of the Renaissance period.  In this first book he is working at a San Francisco Museum and going through a nasty divorce after ten years of marriage.  Eager to create a new life (or, more accurately, to escape reminders of the old), he accepts a temporary assignment in Germany.  He will be Assistant Director for an exhibit entitled "Treasures of Four Centuries:  The Plundered Past Recovered."   The collection consists of twenty paintings seized by the Nazis in World War II and discovered by an American soldier in a salt mine near Salzburg, Austria.  The exhibit will be touring to six US Military bases throughout Europe.  When Norgren reports for duty, he is informed by the Director that there is a forgery in the collection.  Unfortunately, the Director is killed before revealing which painting is the fake.  Now Chris must find the murderer as well as the forgery. 

   The title of the book comes from this speech by Chris Norgren, "The forms themselves are anything but precise.  When you look at a Vermeer, it's your mind that sorts things out, not your eye...That's just what makes him so great.  It's all a magical illusion, a deceptive clarity."  The same can be said of Elkins' skillful writing.  The plot seems fairly clear and straight forward, but readers will be deceived by the surprise twist if their minds have not correctly sorted things out -- there is more going on than meets the eye. 

   To interject some personal editorializing, the Chris Norgren series is a favorite of mine.  I am very disappointed that Elkins seems to have abandoned Norgren in 1993 after only three books.  The 1999 book Loot by Elkins could easily have been written as a fourth Norgren entry, but instead introduced Ben Revere.  I, for one, would welcome more books in the Norgren series. 


   Vermeer was friends with Antony van Leeuwenhoek, famous for inventing the microscope and other optical devices.  Through van Leeuwenhoek, Vermeer learned of the camera obscura and used it for many of his paintings.  The camera obscura results in round distortions of light referred to as "circles of confusion."  April Henry drew upon this term (and its possible multiple meanings) in her debut mystery Circles of Confusion (Harper, 1999).  This Best First Novel nominee has an amateur sleuth with a unique occupation.  Claire Montrose works for the Oregon DMV in the custom plate department deciphering personalized plate applications to determine if there are hidden offensive meanings.  As an added feature, Henry uses vanity plates as sub-chapter dividers.  (And, yes, if you are license-plate challenged, she does translate them in the back of the book!)  Claire's Great-Aunt Cady has died at the age of eighty and left all her possessions to Claire.  Claire and Evan, her super-boring, overly cautious insurance adjuster boyfriend, clean out Cady's mobile home.  Cady had been a WAC in Germany and Claire was surprised to find many World War II mementos among her belongings.  There was also a small but haunting painting that Claire, over Evans' objections, decides to keep instead of sending to the dump with most of Cady's other possessions.  As Claire reads Cady's diary, she realizes the painting could be a lost masterpiece plundered by the Nazis.  She travels to New York City to have experts view the painting.  Troy, an art dealer at an auction house, tells her it is a well done copy of a Vermeer.  Dante, a Metropolitan Museum of Art employee, says it is a genuine, irreplaceable Vermeer.  Claire is not sure what to believe and indeed does go around in confused circles.  The only thing she is sure of is that heart-throb Dante is genuine and about to replace Evan.  Several attempts to steal the painting and more research into Cady's life convince Claire it is a lost Vermeer.  This book is a worthwhile read due to its delightful sleuth and its accurate details about both art history and World War II.  Regrettably, ensuing books in the series did not live up to the promise of this debut.


   Blue Balliett (Elizabeth Ballliett Klein) studied art history at Brown University and taught at the University of Chicago Laboratory School.  In her first fiction book, Chasing Vermeer (Scholastic Press, 2004), she writes what she knows.  Chasing Vermeer was actually written for the junior high age group, but with 272 pages and complex plotting, it holds adult interest as well.  The book received star ratings from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus Reviews.  It has been proclaimed as The DaVinci Code for children.  It would be an excellent vehicle for mystery-obsessed parents to try to hook their children on the genre.  One caution, parents should read it first so they can answer questions -- this may simply be a young adult book but it is not simple.

   The sleuths are two gifted sixth graders at University School in Chicago.  Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay are inspired by their teacher, Ms. Hussey, and her unorthodox teaching methods which emphasize creative thinking, research, and action.  Ms. Hussey has instilled an interest in art in her students, so when Vermeer's painting A Lady Writing is stolen on its way to an exhibit in Chicago Petra and Calder feel compelled to try to find it.  Petra and Calder unearth strange occurrences that might be related to the Vermeer:  Three people received mysterious letters asking them to identify a centuries old crime against one of the world's great painters, Petra and Calder meet an eccentric widow whose husband was a Vermeer authority, Calder has a box from his grandmother with Vermeer's The Geographer painted on it, Calder's good friend Tommy is sending him strange messages in code, Petra dreams about a Vermeer painting she's never seen, and their parents are behaving suspiciously.  Predictably, the juvenile sleuths succeed where adults fail.  However, the journey is filled with many unpredictable twists and turns.  Along the way, readers learn much about art in general and Vermeer in particular and they are motivated to learn more.  The solution that ties all the events together could be deemed controversial and will stimulate much discussion -- just like Petra and Calder's teacher. 


   Vermeer not only inspires awe, but also inspires a wide variety of interesting plots.  Hopefully there are many more authors who will be touched by the Vermeer muse.  Unlike veneer, the appeal of Vermeer-inspired mysteries (like the beauty of Vermeer's paintings) is more than skin deep.