Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Genius by Jesse Kellerman

Ethan Muller is the bad boy youngest son of a fabulously wealthy real estate developer in New York.  In his youth Ethan was kicked out of almost too many prep schools to count.  He flunked out of Harvard.  But at 32 he's been on the straight and narrow for most of a decade, and now owns an art gallery with a small stable of reasonably prestigious artists.  (In today's art world, Ethan tells us in one of many fascinating insights, art is a collaboration between the artist and the dealer who will get his work seen.)  When his estranged father's fixer and right-hand man, Tony Wexler, calls him in to look at an abandoned apartment in Muller Courts, a housing development the family owns in Queens, which is full of boxes and boxes of drawings, Ethan is hesitant...until he actually gets a look at the work of Victor Cracke, which is both innocent and knowing, insane and transcendent, and clearly the work of a genius.

And when his quest to find out more about the artist leads him to a very dark connection--could the artist be a pedophile and serial killer?--Ethan begins to question his own life's work and the definition of art itself.

With The Genius Kellerman has written a compelling, fast-paced, intelligent thriller.  Its two narratives--Ethan's first person recounting of first discovering Cracke's work and mounting the exhibition, then working with the police to discover the connection between images in the work and a series of murders of young boys that took place in the late sixties, which alternates with the history of the Muller family from the arrival of Solomon Mueller as a penniless 18 year old in 1847 up to the present--ultimately come together in a moving and satisfying way.

There is a whole world of mysteries and thrillers out there that involve art.  Jonathan Santlofer, who is himself an artist, has written several thrillers--The Death Artist, Color Blind, The Killing Art--set in the art world.  Stephen King's Duma Key and Rose Madder both feature artists.  Many of the works of Arturo Perez-Reverte and Ian Pears involve art and artists.  Once you start looking, it's amazing how many art world thrillers there are.

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