First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Aaron Elkins, and Thomas & Mercer for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.
A fan of one particular series Aaron Elkins penned over the years, I was curious to see how one of these standalone novels might work for me. Valentino ‘Val’ Caruso is facing middle-age head on, though life has not dealt him the hand he would have liked. An assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Caruso knows his stuff and makes it his business to ensure the New York art world remains on pace with its European counterparts. When Caruso is approached to help with the return of a few pieces of art confiscated by the Italian Government during the lead-up to the Second World War, he jumps at the opportunity to assist. Mr. Solomon Bezzecca, into his ninetieth year, tells of how he witnessed his great-grandfather lose two early pieces by Renoir, torn from his grasp, including an early self-portrait of the author. Caruso soon learns that the current owner is none other than his old friend and mentor, Ulisse Agnello. After securing a plan with Bezzecca, Caruso travels to Italy to determine what might be done. Armed with the knowledge that the Italian courts rejected Bezzecca’s claims of rightful return, Caruso will use his familiarity with the current owner to find a happy medium. After reaching out to Agnello, Caruso discovers that things are more complicated than they first appear. Pulled into the darker side of the Italian art world, Caruso will not stop until he brings these pieces home to a man who wants nothing more than to set the world right once again. Elkins proves that he is able to write effectively outside his forensic genre and still entertain the reader with his captivating writing. Those who enjoy art and mysteries centred around them will surely find much in this book to their liking.
I first became familiar with Aaron Elkins as the father of modern forensic anthropology mysteries, which proved to be a lighthearted and highly educational binge read a few years ago. I knew he had worked on a few other novels, including a husband-wife series, some of which might have an art flavour to them. However, this was my first venture outside of forensics with Elkins at the helm (admittedly, he adds some in this novel). Val Caruso proves to be an interesting character, with much of his backstories relayed through first-person narrative in the opening chapter. Moving forward, he presents as an intelligent man in the art world but one who bumbles around and appears to fall into the crosshairs of those seeking to stop him from accomplishing his mission. The handful of other characters pepper the narrative and inject their own personality traits to provide the reader with some decent contrasts, some more effective than others. The premise of the novel is decent, tracing back a piece of art that was confiscated from its rightful (?) owner in a world where prices change hourly and the criminal element is always lurking. I found the pace of the story decent, but the plot had so many quick resolutions. The art is there, then it’s gone. A shadow changes in the background, then two bodies are left bleeding and alone. There was also a problem with the first-person narrative, as it allowed Elkins (through Caruso) to offer annoying editorialising and information dropping. I have often read books outside of my area of vast knowledge, but I am forced to stumble through and learn for myself, not be told every minute thing that I may not know in a “look at how much I know and will tell you, reader!”.That being said, it is clear that Elkins knows his stuff and has been able to relay it to the reader effectively. I have come to expect Elkins to be a little ‘bumbly’ and ‘preachy’, though it has slightly skewed my enjoyment of this novel.
Kudos, Mr. Elkins, for a decent novel. I know many have lauded your praise and I see much that I enjoyed in this piece. At this stage in your life and career, I suppose it’s best to roll with the punches from reviewers like me.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons