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The Art Thief by Noah Charney

Barnes & Noble has an entire section of the store devoted to books that are moving from hardback to paperback, or didn't sell well, or some other completely legitimate reason for selling them for a ridiculously low price, and it was there--when I was in the mood for a thriller or something like it--that I found The Art Thief. Detectives and heists? Two of my favorite genres, rolled into one? Don't mind if I do.

The Art Thief takes place in Italy, France, and England, and is about a stolen Italian masterpiece, a missing abstract Russian beauty, and a Christie's auction gone horribly wrong. In Italy, the altarpiece for a church (a Caravaggio) is missing in the morning when the priest comes for his breakfast; in France, a Malevich that should be in the vault is gone and possibly on sale at Christie's in London; in London, a painting bought at an auction is stolen and recovered, never mind the thefts of related artwork from the same auction. An art history professor is (mostly) kidnapped; alarms go off with no reason; a tired detective from Scotland yard forgets a lot of names; two Frenchmen eat (a lot). If it sounds confusing, it probably is, but the moral of the story is: so's art.

The Art Thief has a lot of names. I can't even remember all of them, half because they're in so many different languages and half because there are just that many characters. Off the top of my head, I can think of ten major players, and when you add in minor characters, it becomes a sea of names and roles. Charney does an impressive job of not confusing the characters--I never forgot who was who--but there were simply so many of them that a few dropped off the face of the book for 150 pages and then popped back up out of nowhere.

And really, this was the flaw with the book in general: it couldn't decide what to be. The beginning read like an art history text, so much so that I considered putting it down because I had no interest in learning about paintings (especially since the book has no pictures!). In the middle, it becomes a high-stakes thriller with codes and secret messages and the rest of Dan Brown's signature moves. Somewhere in there, it becomes a family drama, with dead sons and reunited lovers. And at the end, it's a good, old-fashioned who-dun-it with a semi-satisfying conclusion. With this came the confusion of how complex the plot wanted to be. There were glorious heists and unsolvable mysteries combined with, well, rather obvious moves and things I guessed five chapters before I got there. The ultimate thief was pretty predictable from early on, though some twists surprised me.

I won't claim I didn't enjoy the book, because it was amusing and sneaky and had some genuinely likable characters (Bizot and Lesourges were favorites, and I am not yet convinced that they weren't meant to be read as a couple), but it was a little too inconsistent to garner high praise from me. I think Charney could benefit from doing a few more books before he hopes to reach the best seller list.


the forest-dweller

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