John Lang likes a challenge like any handsome sociopath does. When he learns that the fabulously wealthy Pietro Fontana has in his enviable art collection a mere copy of Da Vinci's "L'angelo della morte" and the real one still resides in an art museum in Florence he sees it as yet another opportunity to exploit the rich for his own benefit. He proposes that he can acquire the Da Vinci painting for Fontana as long as the price is right. And Fontana almost mockingly accepts the offer. Thus the two enter into a pact that leads to art forgery, theft, betrayal and death. You don't expect this kind of book to have a happy ending, do you?
A few week ago I reviewed the first crime novel in Robin Estridge's career as his alter ego "Philip Loraine." The Angel of Death (1961) is more in line with the kind of book he preferred writing - crime and suspense without the whodunit/detective novel angle. As an example of the art heist/caper novel this book is expertly executed and entertainingly done on a much smaller scale than the better known, overly complex capers novels of Lionel White, Donald E. Westlake and their modern imitators. Though lacking in the expected firework action sequences and techno-wizardry of contemporary caper thrillers it achieves a high level of excitement in the simple yet clever method that the painting is switched with a copy and ferreted out of the museum then past the officious Italian border patrol. Lang enlists only two assistants -- a gifted forger and a skilled antique frame builder -- to pull off the theft and switch of the lusted after painting. Of the two Henry Fletcher, a British oil painter, is the more fascinating character. In fact, Fletcher basically steals everyone's thunder in the final pages.
Extremely adept at copying Renaissance masterpieces and imitating nearly every 15th and 16th century Italian artist including Tintoretto, Mantegna, Filippo Lippi, Della Francesca and of course Da Vinci Fletcher is an undiscovered genius languishing in obscurity and dependent on small sales of his landscapes and portraits in minor London galleries. Fletcher turns out to be one of the most fully realized characters in a book with a relatively small cast. Among the duplicitous and avaricious villains (there are many!) Fletcher stands afar from the sociopathic charm of Lang and exhibits less greed than the others who are clearly in it for the money. He is the philosopher of the book and seems to be the sole reason that Estridge wrote this unusual thriller. This misguided but genius-like artist wins our admiration and sympathy more than anyone else. For in the end he is the only man who truly knows himself and one of the few men in the cast with a conscience or a soul. His last minute epiphany is fraught with tragic doom. Ultimately, he remains unrecognized for his unearthly talent and instead is flattered as a mere imitator thus rendering himself almost worthless. Estridge is clearly on Fletcher's side and gives him the best lines in the final exciting section of the book and allows him the most poignant of epiphanies. When everyone begins to turn on one another and the simple plan explodes in a series of betrayals and ironic incidents it is Fletcher who has the last laugh even as he faces his own demise.
Last time I reviewed a Philip Loraine book I skipped over the QUOTES section. This time I'll go overboard in treating you to his acerbic wit and trenchant observations:
Fontana to Lang: "We have something in common: it is the quality of aloneness, of the cat. It is probably the only thing we have in common -- or ever will have. No one can be successful without it."
Paolo, a hired thug, is combing his hair while talking to his employer: "I need [this gun]. But I need not use it. Any more than I need to use this." The comb had vanished, replaced by a flick-knife, blade gleaming.
Brauner sighed. "Oh for God's sake, why are you Italians such children?"
English women are not used to being called "adorable" by total strangers, no one can blame them for liking it.
They crossed the Croisette and descended to the beach where already the nationalities were being laid out side by side in serried rows like prawns waiting to be canned.
He did not care about the money; he only cared that he was supposed to be a person--a human being with a heart and soul who, it seemed, must always face a world without compassion, a world without kindness, honesty or love. Never in all the years [...] that he had been alone had anything pierced him quite so savagely as this betrayal; and it seemed all the worse because the cause of it -- the money -- did not matter to him. It hurt him physically in the stomach. It was as if a brutal dishonest world had rejected him finally as a human being -- as if he could no longer live on the world's terms.
Fletcher to Lang: "Don't bother to lie anymore; it's a bore, you're a bore. You're a complete and utter write-off, both as a human being and as a crook. All you've got is a pretty face and in a few years even that'll look like anybody else's"
And he thought, If this is the world's reward, this feeling of satisfaction when one looks at a beaten man, then I don't want the world.
John Lang reminded me of a more charming Tom Ripley, no less dangerous or cunning, and the book recalls much of the darker explorations of Patricia Highsmith's world of loners, misfits and solipsistic criminals. But unlike a Highsmith novel here we get an unlikely pair of do-gooders trying their best to thwart the plan's of Lang and Fletcher. Stir in a mysterious man in gray on the trail of Lang at every corner and Fontana's watch dog German secretary into the mix and the caper plot begins to bubble over with double-dealing and mistrust. The story is never too complicated and the suspense is maintained throughout. The reader can't help but try to outguess each of the villains in their double-crossing and urge on Benedetto and Joanna as the eleventh hour heroes.
The Angel of Death was published in both the UK and the US. Copies of the US editions, both hardcover first edition and paperback reprint, are the easiest to come by in the used book market. Fans of the caper novel, lovers of art history, devotees of thrillers set in scenic locales dripping in cultural richness will find much to their liking in this superior entry in the heist novel. I'm eager to read the next Loraine novel in my ever growing pile of his books. He's one of the best discoveries in crime fiction I've stumbled across in years.