Iain Pears is a superlative, British author, whose fiction and mysteries are well worth your time. He has a doctorate in art history from Oxford, has lived in France, Italy and the U.S., and all of his books reveal his cosmopolitan, erudite background and his astounding grasp of history, art and language.
I started with his stand-alone novels, of which there are four, and was hooked from the first. One of these, The Portrait, which is a quirky, stream-of-consciousness, almost-plot-less, monologue about an artist’s relationship with a devastatingly severe critic is unusual and hard to read, but rewardingly saturated with Pears’ extensive knowledge of art and art history. The other three – An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Dream of Scipio and Stone’s Fall – are incomparable historical novels. Intricately plotted, steeped in the history of many different eras, with characters which walk off the page they are so real, at least one of them belongs on one of those “100 Best Novels of All Time” lists which Time and Entertainment Weekly have recently published. In fact, if I could do my own version of such a list, all three of these novels would appear on it.
Then, to my surprise and delight, I discovered that Pears’ first venture into fiction writing was a 7-book mystery series known as the Art History Mysteries. Set mostly in Italy, with sleuth Flavia di Stefano from the Art Fraud Squad and her unwitting partner-sleuth, art historian and dealer, Jonathan Argyll, these strike me as Pears-lite. Shorter and snappier than his other novels, with wry humor and regular romps around Europe, they all feature the theft and/or forgery of great art work and the subsequent murders which inevitably result from such shenanigans (as mystery readers know, murder happens). Though you could read them in any order, if you are compulsive like me, you should start with the first, The Raphael Affair.
Though reading these mysteries cannot compare with actually going to Rome, Florence and Venice – walking spell-bound through their great buildings, museums and plazas; viewing the paintings, sculpture and fountains; sipping wine and eating in little bistros and cafés – it comes as close I am likely to get in the near future. Pears gets the ambience just right, presents you with painless art history lessons and a peek at the politics, economics and dangers of the art world, and creates seven whacking-good stories to boot.