A quick visit to Grandma Angelina for background and the final word on the real artist behind the painting reveals a secret relationship and the discovery of Tony’s true heritage. His grandmother was in an arranged and loveless marriage but prior to the actual wedding had an affair with Ashe when she lived in Paris. She returned to England engaged to marry the man she did not love and pregnant with Ashe’s child. Tony's father was that child making Ashe Tony's grandfather.
She tells Tony that Ashe recognized in her a talent for painting that he fostered. As a joke she learned to paint exactly like Ashe and had so much fun that they made a ritual of their art creations. They would literally stand beside one another and paint the same scene or person, but each with a slightly different viewpoint, at a slightly different angle. It was almost impossible to tell the two paintings apart from each other as they both painted in the same style, used the same brushstrokes, shading and even shared the same palette of paint. They also signed their works using the same overlaid initials of F and A. That was Frederick’s idea – a monogram that would work for both of them on paintings that each of them had created.
Shortly after this remarkable life history Tony’s grandmother dies unexpectedly but not before he has uncovered 81 paintings in the attic. But who painted them? There is a story about the other set of paintings that involved Angelina’s enraged husband who in a fit of jealousy destroyed all the art work by Ashe and his wife – all but one painting that Angelina managed to rescue from a huge bonfire her husband lit in their backyard. It is this painting that Tony had appraised. His grandmother cannot remember exactly which ones were burned and which managed to survive. She is sure that Ashe’s were all destroyed. Only one other person may know the truth -- Angelina’s lifelong companion and servant Grace with several secrets of her own.
Together Margaret and Tony do some complicated detective work trying to figure out who painted the 81 paintings stored in the attic. They track down a British collector of rare art work with the wonderfully evocative name of Renfrewe Coombes, who claims to own two of Ashe’s paintings. Coombes is like a modern day Count Fosco in both his physical appearance and his sinister persona. As disreputable as Wilkie Collins' archetypal Victorian villain Coombes surrounds himself with thugs and bodyguards and a secret treasure trove of rare art work. Tony at one point dwells on Coombes as a formidable adversary:
"I realize now that I must have been in a state of euphoria, brought about by the sheer magnitude of Coombe's villainy. To a person like me, he was so far from anyone I had ever before met I was quite unable to contemplate him as a serious obstacle. I was nervous, but strangely confident. I was over simplifying."
Will Coombes be able to help Tony and Margaret or is he after the Ashe paintings to complete his own collection?
This is quite a good example of the art caper subgenre and a nifty addition to the many crime novels featuring an Average Joe caught up in a world of con artists and criminals who uses his own knowledge (photography, to be specific ) to outwit them at their own game. Ormerod was a photographer himself and we get abundant detail on how Tony's photo lab operates. It's not just the author showing off, it's all for a purpose. Pay attention to the sections on photography and you may see what Tony is up to. I missed it all and it was right in front of me.
Recommended for both Ormerod fans and those who enjoy mystery novels about art forgery and rare paintings. By Death Possessed, like many of Ormerod's books is now available as a digital book (Kindle format) from Lume Books and -- luckily! -- is available for purchase in both the US and the UK.