Friday’s Forgotten Book: A Deceptive Clarity by Aaron Elkins

Aaron Elkins is an Edgar award winning author, mostly known for his books about Gideon Oliver, a forensic anthropology expert in Washington State. Another early series which I rarely hear mentioned is about an art historian and only has three books. The first is A Deceptive Clarity (Walker & Co., 1987), which introduces Chris Norgren. Norgren is going through a painful divorce and finds life in general frustrating. The director of the San Francisco County Museum of Art where Norgren works has noticed his lassitude and proposes to send him to Europe to help manage a traveling exhibit of art pieces recovered from the Nazis after World War II.

Arriving in Berlin, Norgren is almost immediately confronted with one of the trials of the civilian on a military installation: obtaining the correct ID to allow the civilian to do what he (or she) went there to do. What he was given in Rhein-Main is not considered acceptable at Tempelhof, where his office is. His lack of ID becomes a mildly entertaining thread, along with his divorce lawyer who calls him every few days with changing demands from his soon-to-be ex-wife.

Once he manages to gain access to his office, the director of the exhibit Peter van Cortlandt casually mentions the forgery he thinks he’s discovered among the exhibit’s collection. Norgren knows van Cortlandt would never joke about something so serious but does not learn details before van Cortlandt rushes away to catch a flight to Frankfurt.

Norgren of course wants to see these masterpieces and to find the forgery. As the guard unlocks the storeroom, noise inside alerts them and in no time they are being efficiently beaten by two goons who leave them bloody and semi-conscious. The next few days pass in a blur as Norgren recovers in the local military hospital. He’s only back at work a few hours when he learns that van Cortlandt is dead, apparently from a fall in a seedy district of Frankfurt. His puzzling death leaves Norgren in charge of the exhibition. While he works on it, he also examines each of the pictures to try to decide if it is a forgery, which results in a lengthy but absorbing description of the authentication process.

This mystery is as much about the paintings as it is about the death of van Corlandt, perhaps more so. It is quite cerebral. I enjoyed it but I can see readers uninterested in the art world will not find it appealing, which is sadly their loss.

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