A summer tourist town on the coast of Oregon is the setting for Kate Wilhelm’s Death of an Artist. It’s a pretty straightforward murder mystery that ropes in a retired NYC homicide detective, the co-owner of a gift shop, her artist-daughter, med-student granddaughter and small great grandson. No mystery who dies but it does take a while. During the lead-up and exposition, the pink-haired, fiftyish, quixotic artist is revealed to be seriously dysfunctional—and on her fourth husband. The fourth husband is pretty plainly a creep. The retired detective has sought refuge and a new life as a woodworker in this remote enclave in order to forget a horrendous shooting that ended his law enforcement career. The med-student-soon-to-be-resident daughter of the artist is remarkably well-adjusted, despite her really crazy parent, and the kid is cute and slightly precocious.
Death of an Artist is fluently written and, after the slow start, moves along predictably in the typical genre pattern. It’s a decent read. The detective work is police procedural lite, so is the art-making, woodworking, gallery and tchotchke shop managing and doctor-in-training detail. So don’t expect a clever tutorial on any of these topics, woven into the fabric of the story. Instead, prepare for an exhaustive examination of Stef, the Technicolor artist, her quirks, her motives, her temper and her angst.
The book was okay and interesting enough to finish. I wasn’t thrilled with the endless dissection of Stef’s persona—and I am not of the crowd that believes all artists are driven and benighted souls and probably bipolar. Slick badass husbands are also pretty cliché. Daughters who figure out their messed-up mothers while in psych class in med school and move past the childhood trauma without a blink are, umm, occasions for willing suspension of disbelief. And the fact that nearly everyone instantly determines to personally off the killer with their convenient handguns, which they each know how to shoot with deadly accuracy, is a little too vigilante to be credible in this genteel town and among these conventional and educated people.
Method gets telegraphed too obviously but it is a clever twist on planned homicide. Resolution is a tad convenient but the alternative—frontier justice that will destroy several generations, not to mention the bonus romance—is mercifully sidestepped. I didn’t empathize with any of the characters although I did want to find out what happened to them. So I’d rate Death of an Artist as good entertainment and escape but not top tier in the mysteries I’ve read recently.
Death of an Artist: A Mystery Kate Wilhelm | St. Martin’s Minotaur 2012