“Qwilleran pondered the complexities of the art beat.” (pg 103)
So in the first book of the amazing series we are introduced to James (Jim) Qwilleran–known as Qwill to his friends. An ex-newspaperman who has achieved many honors–Sports writer, police reporter, war correspondent during WWII, winner of the Publishers’ Trophy, and author of a book on urban crime. However, he has recently recovered from bad times, a horrible divorce and bout of alcoholism, and is trying to get back on the straight and narrow and on a newspaper.
He applies to the newspaper The Daily Fluxion and gets assigned to the art beat.
Qwill is in shock as he has no idea why he of all people would be assigned that area. He knows nothing about art and the more he tries to learn about it the more he ends up becoming confused. I myself study Art History, and understand that some concepts can leave people mystified. Especially all the different types of modern art.
Qwill’s winds up working with his best friend from grade school, Archie, who tells him that the reason they need another person on the art beat is that their art critic, George Bonfield Mountclemens III, has disgruntled many artists and art galleries. Those of the upset parties who affluent with long reaching arms are putting pressure on the paper. To appease them, the Flux will add a lighter, fluffier side to the art beat such as profiles of the artists, written by yours truly, Qwill.
Qwill isn’t very happy about this idea but a job’s a job. So he begins what he thinks will be an easy task, only to discover that it is far from as sweet and easy as he’d like.
Braun really loves art as she writes about it primarily in this book, but it continuously crops up in the series. There is a discussion of older modern arts such as Monet & Renior‘s Impressionism, Van Gogh‘s Post-Impressionism, Gauguin‘s Primitivism and Abstract Expressionism. She also gives us examples of artists who were incorporating the styles of the day such as Neo-Dada, Fluxus, Hard-Edge Painting, etc.
Qwill finds himself encountering many types of artists; the Norman Rockwell-esque commercial artist Carl Halapay, Welder Butchy Bolton, Abstract artist Zoe Lamberth, Dada inspired Nine Oh Two Four Six Three (Nino), etc each having their own opnion on what “good” amd “bad” art are. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is their hatred of Mountclemens. In fact nearly every character has a reason for killing him.
Qwill is extremely curious to see Monteclemens and find out if he is really as bad as everyone insists. He manages to get a dinner invitation and is prepared a mouth-watering meal. (Of which we will be making some things from). He also meets Monteclemens cat Koko, named after the artist the Chinese artist Kao K’o-Kung. While taking part in such a scrumptious meal he finds himself becoming a renter of Monteclemens’s downstairs apartment and errand boy to the elusive, mysterious, hermit.
Qwill continues his work, a little disgruntled at finding himself as an errand boy for Mountclemens but enjoying Koko’s company, as the cat loves to visit him.
When Mountclemens travels to New York for a few days, Qwill is entrusted with taking care of Koko. As he does, he starts to grow fond of him and imagine what it would be like to have him in his life full time.
Soon a murder occurs! It is Earl Lamberth, Zoe’s husband and owner of Lamberth Gallery. The cops think that it was a burglary gone wrong, but Qwill has his own suspicions. Why did Earl turn away from his attacker? Who has a key to the gallery? Was it a robbery gone wrong or was the destruction of the site purposely done to cover up murder?
As Earl turned his back on the killer and the fact that the killer must have had a key to get in, leads Qwill to suspect Zoe. Beautiful Zoe that Qwill is falling for. Zoe who disliked her husband and may have felt trapped in a marriage. Zoe who doesn’t wear black but instead colors that accentuates her beauty. The Zoe who is constantly “suddenly remembering” information she “forgot” to tell the police. Could Zoe be the murderer?
However, just like Mountclemens, Earl has many who dislike him, all of which are from the art world. There are numerous artists who feel he has cheated them. Could one have stabbed him for revenge? Might it have been Nino who publicly threatened him? Or Butchy, one who hated Earl for causing her to lose a very pricey welding commission? Could it be Mountclemens, the man also in love with Zoe?
With Mountclemens back from his trip and Koko gone from his life, Qwill feels out of sorts but eager to pursue the case and discover the murderer.
Qwill pursues some new leads, such as a disappeared Florentine Knife from the museum, that turn up dry and leave him feeling stupid (knife was in the museum the whole time) and nowhere near to discovering who killed Lambert.
However this is quickly remedied when Zoe Lamberth calls him over and asks him to her place to “talk”. However this happiness is short-lived as on his return he runs into Koko who is urgently trying to get him to go to Mountclemens’ apartment. Koko won’t stop yowling at the top of his voice so Qwill goes up in hopes this will silence him. When they arrive there Koko keeps approaching the back door as if he wants to go out, even though he is an indoor cat and never journeys out. Qwill steps out to see what Koko is freaking out about and discovers Mountclemens’ body dead from being stabbed by a knife.
Now the knife Mountclemens is stabbed by is not the Florentine one shown on the cover. Earl is also not stabbed by a Florentine knife but by some framing tools. I always thought that it was unfair to put that particular knife on the cover since it has nothing to do with the plot. In fact the, whole Florentine knife portion of the plot is a red herring and has nothing to do with the case. In fact while the original cover isn’t as intresting as the one on my book it does stick closer to the story. In fact the newest cover is really bad as it still has the Florentine knife and also has voting buttons, even though the only voting in this is who has the best costume at a V-Day party. In fact the whole story takes place in Feb, not prime voting time.
With this death, Qwill is sure the two are connected and is intent on discovering who the killer is. With so many pleased at Mountclemens’ depature, Qwill isn’t short on suspects.
With Mountclemens gone, Qwill has become guardian over Koko, moving him down into his apartment. Qwill goes upstairs to get Koko’s cushion and while there Koko starts digging at a closet. Qwill, intrigued, opens the door to see what it curtails. Inside he discovers racks and racks of paintings, the very ones that Mountclemens had boasted about owning. Koko continues into the closet trying to grasp something. When Qwill reaches in there he finds Koko’s stuffed mouse and a half of a Ghirotto painting.
Now in the story Ghirotto was a famous painter known for his works of ballerinas and monkeys. He never crossed this subject except once, where on one side of the canvas he had a pink ballerina and on the other side a blue monkey. During transportation the canvas ripped and the pieces were sold separately. To the person who can reunite them, the combined painting would be worth about $150,000 (About $1,060,000.00 today.) Earl Lambert owned the ballerina side and was eagerly searching for the its match, the monkey. He had received many offers for his portion by numerous collectors, including Mountclemens, but would never sell as he dreamed of reuniting the two pieces.
Qwill believes that the Ghirotto is at the center of Earl’s murder; supposing that Mountclemens might have killed Earl to get his Ghirotto and his wife. Qwill also happens onto another secret room in the Mountclemens’ homestead but since this is also full of paintings and canvases he thinks it is an extension of his art closet.
More evidence is brought to light as Zoe reveals some secrets. Apparently the Lambert Gallery that was owned by the Lamberts was in actuality owned by Mountclemens. Mountclemens had the gallery be under Earl so that he could praise his gallery in his art column with no one figuring out that he was getting paid for bashing the other galleries and artists while garnering free publicity. Earl was Mountclemens’ solitary employee who dealt with dealers and artists, created the frames for the pictures, and juggled the books. Zoe also discloses that lately Earl had become more and more angry with Mountclemens, insisting that he was pushing him too far. Earl contained the documents that showed that Mountclemens wasn’t being truthful with the IRS amd there was a lot of juggling going on with the books. Mountclemens is looking guiltier and guiltier by the miniute for Earl’s murder, but then who killed Mountclemens? And is Zoe being completely truthful in saying she had nothing to do with either event? After all she is the one to gain the most now no longer being controlled by her husband or the art critic.
And what happened to Mountclemens? Who killed him? Why wasn’t he wearing his prosthetic arm? Who was he meeting outside? Why didn’t he have a flashlight on him?
That evening when Qwill arrives home Koko wants to go upstairs to his old apartment. Qwill decides to acquiesce him and the two trek upstairs. Koko jumps all over and rubs his face on everything like cats do. During this catly ritual Qwill notices that one of Mountclemens’ knives is missing. Could Mountclemens have carried it outside with him? Might it be the murder weapon? And if so why?
Koko and Qwill investigate outside but soon return indoors. Upon their return Koko wants to go into the secret room again. When they get there Qwill notices that some of the paintings are missing. Inside he finds a ton of Scrano paintings. Scrano paintings are worth hundred of thousands of dollars. As Qwill is contempleting this Koko reads the signature, much like he reads everything else, backwards. O-N-A-R-C-S. Just as Qwill is studying this a man enters the room! It’s Narx! He attacks Qwill, but just as he lunges Koko experiences a whirlwind cat flight and trips him, causing Narx to hit a table and knock himself out.
So Mountclemens and Oscar Narx were collaborating on paintings. Mountclemens would design the images and Narx would paint them. Mountclemens could no longer be an artist after he lost his hand and Narx had beautiful technique but no ideas. Mountclemens falsified an identity for their works and would plug them in his column, Narx would act as Scarno’s art dealer, and Earl would sell them at the gallery. Mountclemens decided to get rid of Earl Lambert and he sent Narx in his place to New York to meet with a collector to ensure he had an alibi (the plane ticket proving he was out of the area). He told Narx that he would drive up later. When Narx met with the collector,the collector wanted everything they had of Scarno’s work, so he phoned Lambert to let him know. Lambert said that he would send them by Mountclemens’ station wagon, but Narx said it was already gone, as Mountclemens was supposed to be on his way to New York. After Lambert insisted it was still in the alley, Narx started to think something fishy was going on. That night Mountclemens went down to the gallery and killed Earl. Mountclemens had a key (since it was his gallery) and Earl would never suspect Mountclemens could kill him as he is missing an arm. However Mountclemens strength plus the advantage of surprise, made him able to complete the deed. Narx realized that he could blackmail Mountclemens for more money, but his attempt only angered Mountclemens. Mountclemens was planning on killing Narx that night and was hiding in the shadows with a knife planning on stabbing him. Unfortunately for Mountclemens, Narx smelt Mountclemens’ lime-peel scent and was able to protect himself, killing Mountclemens in self-defense.
Even with that case wrapped up Qwill has many questions on his mind. How much of Koko’s leading Qwill was due to catly ways and how much had a more supernatural reason? Did Koko lead Qwill to the Ghirotto or was he really after his stuffed mouse? Was Koko just hungry when he rubbed against Mountclemens’ knife rack or did he want to show Qwill that a knife was missing? What is really going on in Koko’s head?