Other noted thefts involved the "Mona Lisa" (lost for two years) and two thefts of Edvard Munch's "The Scream." Two Renoirs and a Rembrandt left a Swedish museum and were recovered. And then of course there's the noted and extensive art plundering done by Nazi forces in Europe.
So when Neil Olson's new thriller THE BLACK PAINTING (Jan. 9 release) begins with a death in a coastal New England family, and coalesces around a missing painting by Francisco Goya, the tension increased with each twist of plot -- and we readers know something of what's at stake. Not only is there a dead grandfather (manipulative even after his lifetime) and an art heist ... there's obsession, with all its dark shadows and complicities.
Goya's art at its most intense depicted the "Disasters of War" -- dark, disturbing paintings that remind viewers of the horrors of the battlefields, which for him focused on the 1802 Peninsular War. But consensus is that the painter struggled with intense mental illness as well, and his final noted 14-image series, the "Black Paintings" (for both their appearance and topics), gives us a phenomenal view of terror within the soul.
Olson, whose first blockbuster novel The Icon also involved art theft (his early education was as an art historian), seizes the despair and fear involved in the Black Paintings to become the center of this new novel -- and invents a fifteenth painting that has found its way, perhaps illegally, to the home of the Morse family. Now the painting is gone, and the family patriarch's death creates further chaos among especially his grown grandchildren, each fragile in a separate way, and each still under the older man's thumb.
The thriller -- which is an intense page-turner -- comes to us through the eyes of the apparently most broken and frail of the cousins, Teresa, whose Spanish father, long gone, once connected deeply with the painting and its fierce owner. As the art historian in the family, she's also the one who understands the painting itself. She explains to her cousins:
"There's a painting in a private collection in New York which a few historians think is that lost one."Fear not, this is far from a paranormal thread. As Teresa quickly answers, "You're being too literal. The demon is a metaphor for the trouble in his life."
"But we know it's not," James insisted, "because Grandpa had it."
"Maybe they're both real," Teresa replied, not liking his agitation. "Maybe neither. I never saw the portrait. The point is ..." ...
"You haven't answered his question," Audrey pressed. "How did this demon get from Goya into the painting."
And for their grandfather himself, no doubt. As the cousins struggle to escape the old man's domination, their own demons become increasingly evident. Can Teresa push past her physical ailments, her uncertain memories, and her confused understandings of her cousins, to find the answers she needs? Will she risk her life in doing so?
Acutely probing the damage of generations of manipulation and domination, Olson's mystery/thriller resonates more deeply than many in a similar genre, including such line-crossers as The Da Vinci Code -- at heart, this is a book about the demons within a family ... and whether they can be faced, or ever exorcised.
Quick comment about the cover art: Ignore it. It's got nothing to do with the story, and it's silly. The publisher, by the way, is Hanover Square Press -- yet another focused imprint of Harlequin and HarperCollins.
PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.