Friday, April 16, 2021

FFB: By Death Possessed – Roger Ormerod

Photographer Tony Hines inherits a painting from his grandmother and takes to it to be appraised by experts on the Antiques Road Show (yes, the TV show). Dr. Margaret Dennis tells him that he has a rare painting by British ex-pat Frederick Ashe. Rare because only six of his paintings are known to exist and are held in a few museums in Europe and in private collections. Tony disbelieves her. He was always told that it was the work of his grandmother. Margaret says she knows Ashe’s brushwork and she points out the distinctive overlaid FA initials in the corner of the painting as his unique signature. “No, you’re looking at that the wrong way,” Tony tells Dr. Dennis. The initials actually read AF which stands for Angelina Foote, the name of his grandmother. Margaret assures him that he is the mistaken one. There is no doubt in her mind that the painting is by Frederick Ashe. She urges Tony to take the artwork home and insure it for £20,000. So begins Tony Hines’ unwanted adventure into the world of manic art collectors, art theft, and con artistry.

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?

I may have given too much info about the set-up for this novel but all of that happens in only the first three chapters!  By Death Possessed (1988) may seem like pure suspense, but it is a definitely murder mystery with some surprising twists which I have learned to expect from the inventive and devious mind of Roger Ormerod.  I enjoyed this book quite a lot.  Some readers may feel there is an avalanche of double crossing in the finale and that some of the wrapping up is too pat and convenient. Despite that I'm all for a writer who will fully enter the world he has created. Ormerod is not afraid to wallow in the Machiavellian betrayals of these people who will do anything to own one of kind art.

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.

14 comments:

  1. "A quick visit to Grandma Angelina... reveals a secret relationship and the discovery of Tony’s true parentage. 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 was that child."
    Is Angelina actually Tony's mother or his grandmother. If she's his grandmother was her child Tony's mother or his father? Is there an explanation for why she had to make an arranged marriage, which is rather odd in Britain in the twentieth century, rather than carrying on with Foote or on her own?

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    1. Ugh! Very careless of me (once again!) to leave off typing some crucial words from my notes. Tony is her *grandchild* not her child. See corrected paragraph above.

      I didn't think it necessary to go into the arranged marriage - actually a marriage forced upon her. Anyone can learn all details of Angelina's life by reading the book.

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  2. Always pleased to see another Roger Ormerod recommendation although I've read quite a few scattered over many moons. I made a slight error in my recollections of A Death To Remember although I got the broad outline correct - read it in October, 1988 so should have checked first. An interesting point re the late Mr Ormerod is that he had a varied career finishing up I think as a postman before taking his chance on a life of fictional crime in his early 50 s. Assuming this to be correct was he dreaming up plots while on his rounds - mundane tasks can often free up the mind to work on other things. Whatever the reason he seems to have hit the ground running once he got started - I doubt if he had to wait long for inspiration to strike at his desk in Wolverhampton. With apologies for this speculation I will add By Death Possessed to my admittedly extended tbr list - Mike Vawdrey

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  3. John - Thanks for introducing me to Roger Ormerod. I enjoyed More Dead Than Alive and The Hanging Doll Murder so am off to find a copy of this one now.

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    1. So glad they proved to be good recommendations. More Ormerod (spelled right now) reviews coming throughout the year. I bought six of them!

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  4. Who can resist a good art forgery mystery? Not me. Almost as good as a good Locked Room affair, Not quite, but still very very tolerable. Am I right?

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    1. I enjoyed this quite a bit. Ormerod loves the genre, you can tell, and that makes his books better than average. I confess that I prefer a good con artist or heist/caper novel more than a locked room murder mystery. I am leaning more to suspense and inverted crime novels these days. The motives and the character interactions are more fascinating to me in my late life now rather than the puzzles that fascinated me when I was a teenager, the era I first became addicted to this genre.

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  5. Good to see you're enjoying Ormerod and have joined me in exploring this unjustly overlooked, deviously minded mystery writer. It's baffling he flew under everyone's radar for so long as he's exactly what (most) classic mystery readers wishes in a modern crime writer. A writer who built on the past to create something new, which is why And Hope to Die and A Shot at Nothing actually succeeded in being modern GAD novels instead of being pale, watered down imitations of the original.

    You can also expect more Ormerod on my end in the coming months. One Deathless Hour, Face Value and The Key to the Case are on the top of the pile!

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    1. I have some of the Richard Patton books to read, but the next one will be another art mystery— The Silence of the Night, apparently Ormerod’s second book featuring his first series character David Mallin.

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  6. Has anyone else read "The Seven Razors of Ockham"? I'd be interested to know how you think it compares to the rest of his work.

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    1. I’m a novice having read only three and reviewed two here on my blog. Not read the book you mention. I defer to other more widely read Ormerod fans. Perhaps someone will chime in.

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    2. I'm only slightly ahead of John. So I can't answer your question, but the book has been added to my emergency wishlist. Just noticed something that wasn't mentioned on the FantasticFiction page (yes, bad source).

      "An anonymous killer is targeting the prize-winners, picking them off one day at a time.

      ...

      Each target is kept under closely-watched police guard, yet the murders continue.
      "

      Sounds like a whole slew of impossible crimes!

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  7. I have one of his in my to read towers, (Pile doesn't do them justice) currently reading a Christopher Hale, Witchwood of which I managed to pick up a cheap reading copy. Thanks again.

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