Tag Archives: forgery

Unfinished Portrait – Anthea Fraser

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Unfinished Portrait by Anthea Fraser isn’t so much a who-dunnit? as a where-is-she? Writer Rona Parish is commissioned to produce a biography of Elspeth Wilding, a celebrated painter who disappeared more than a year before, leaving her studio, unfinished work and family behind. Rona hesitates—she is a series amateur sleuth who gets dragged into more mayhem than she can handle–afraid that this story could be more than a simple book. But she succumbs and, naturally, the baffling disappearance takes center stage. Elspeth’s trail lures Rona outside her picturesque village of Marsborough to towns in the surrounding countryside, to London and even to the Scottish coast.

Elspeth Wilding is, or was,  a reclusive, egocentric, wild talent and everyone has a tale to tell about her, many of them unflattering. Rona struggles to maintain her comfortable, event-free life, lunching and dining nearly every day with friends, her twin sister, and her artist husband who lives at home part time and in his studio across town, where he teaches art students several days a week. Rona’s dog needs constant walking. Her sister collects a difficult but attractive boyfriend with a connection to Wilding. Wilding’s family members do and don’t know what happened to her. And all is not as it seems in the art world or in Wilding’s world.

An old friend, a dramatic suicide, a greedy possibly-corrupt celebrity, a loyal housekeeper, divorced parents with new partners, a Scottish hideaway and some old masterpieces complicate the plot. The book is a UK print and is written in British vernacular, which makes it more interesting. Rona’s life of pubs, wine bars, interior design and fashion shows is upscale and moderately privileged—she seems to have a readymade journalism job for the times when she doesn’t feel up to the work of biographies so the story bears a tinge of fairytale. She doesn’t work especially hard nor ask very penetrating questions of her sources.

A murder that seems, and is, senseless lends sudden urgency to solving the mystery but the resolution comes pretty much out of nowhere and doesn’t feel organic to the plot. The concerns of the characters don’t come across as terribly urgent, the evil is grafted on, and the end is not entirely satisfying. Fraser creates a world of fortunate people who are more or less unmindful of their advantages and so it’s hard to get too worked up about their problems. Unfinished Portrait is an undemanding read with lovely Britishisms and an okay but uncompelling mystery that you cannot solve but that is ultimately revealed in detail. Could have been stronger. I’m going to reserve judgment until I plow through one more of her mysteries with a different protagonist, to see whether she dashes off finales as casually in all of her novels.

Unfinished Portrait (Rona Parish Mysteries)   Anthea Fraser | Severn House  2010

Lethal Legacy – Linda Fairstein

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I resisted reading a Linda Fairstein mystery for years, even though her reviews were great, her sales were brisk and her bona fides were impeccable. The inciting incidents of her mysteries are inspired by the work of the DA’s Sex Crimes Unit in Manhattan. Some of the saddest and most horrific stories I covered as a journalist were the sexual assaults, many ending in murder, of women and little girls. When I had time to read for pleasure, I just couldn’t face fiction about that kind of savagery.

Maybe Lethal Legacy is the lone Fairstein novel in which the possibility of assault is the excuse to get Alexandra Cooper, the sex crimes detective who stars in Fairstein’s high stakes whodunits, on the case. If so, I’m happy to have stumbled across it. There is mayhem galore in the book but it isn’t a serial-killer-who-targets-and-mutilates-young-women-living-in-historic-brownstones novel. Instead, half-hidden worlds come to light and some very contemporary cops explore them in search of suspects. I will definitely check out more of Fairstein’s fiction because Lethal Legacy is one of the most satisfying detective tales I’ve read in a long time.

This book weaves a deadly plot around rare books and mythological ancient maps worth gazillions. The New York Public Library–from which I borrowed the novel and many of the other books I am reading for this challenge—is at the center of a sophisticated mix of impassioned collectors, skillful conservation and forgery, wealthy trustees and their twisted family ties, the architectural history of New York City, legal maneuvering in criminal court, strategic maneuvering in the police department, a raft of suspects from every level of Manhattan society, and a few decent meals, courtesy of an urbane love interest who is an internationally respected master chef.

It’s great. Clean beautiful writing that doesn’t intrude on the story, clues dropped everywhere that actually turn out to mean something, realistic dialog—except for the lack of casual profanity which is totally unrealistic for cops on murder stakeouts, sorry—accurate portraits of New York now and fascinating glimpses of New York in some of its more colorful eras. Fairstein ran the Sex Crimes Unit in the DA’s Office in Manhattan for two decades and she knows her stuff—police procedural and legal. She does a yeoman’s job of research to make situations and clues out of real events and history. You learn a lot while you’re trying to figure out who did it and why.

The luxury condo conversion of an abandoned historic cancer hospital on Central Park West—watched it happen. The reference to the Collyer brothers, epic hoarders who died under mountains of their stockpiled junk in a Riverside Drive mansion, is a famous and true account of New York weirdness. The site of the present main library building was the early City’s first reservoir. The popular park that abuts the building now is a former potter’s field that has catacombs beneath it where miles of the library’s stacks are stored. All this trivia is factual and serves the fictional plot well.

Lethal Legacy was a very good read and I have learned to be grateful for those as I slog through some books that don’t really make the cut. So I’m adding Fairstein to my revisit list. I’ll probably order a few more Alexandra Cooper mysteries from the St. Agnes Library, my fabulous local branch, now that Cooper has ensured the NYPL’s future health and well-being by finding the rare folios and the murderous dealers and collectors, and making the Main Reading Room safe for us all again.

Lethal Legacy    Linda Fairstein | Doubleday  2009