"Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere."- G.K. Chesterton.
Over the past two or three months, I have been making futile attempts at pouring an equal amount of book reviews of detective stories from two contrasting eras into this blog, but the scale refuses to cooperate – and tips in favor of the classically styled, neo-orthodox mysteries instead of those that were actually penned during the efflorescence of the genre. So I have decided to even out the ratio between GAD and Post-GAD stories by reading them alternately in order to intersperse the reviews. Of course, this determination to straighten out this uneven distribution of stage time guarantees absolutely nothing and it's not an unimaginable scenario that, within a week or two, I will look back at this post and think, "well, that didn't happen," but hey, at least I tried. Sort of, anyway.
But enough of this palaver, it's time to make this spot once again pulsate with the linguistic rhythms of ritualistic drumming that will gently mesmerize you into a state of relaxation – in which you will be possessed by a dawning realization that your cluttered bookshelves feel very bare if Herbert Resnicow isn't wedged in between Helen Reilly and John Rhode.
The plot of The Gold Frame (1987) centers on a long-vanished, previously unknown, painting from the brush of one of the greatest painters from the Dutch Golden Age, Jan Vermeer, which was confiscated during the German occupation and ended up behind the Iron Curtain – before it resurfaced and was offered for sale to Mr. Daniel Belmont.
Mr. Belmont is the founder of The Fine Arts Museum of New York, which was erected out of love for his now late wife and their shared adoration for the Dutch Masters of the 17th Century, who presently has a seat on the Board of Trustees – and it has always been a dream of the old man to secure an original Vermeer for his museum. The serendipitous acquisition of this long-lost masterpiece, entitled The Girl in a Blue Kimono, seems to have fulfilled this longing as scientific testing of the paint layers and wooden panel check out and experts affirm that it's unmistakably a Vermeer. Well, all except for one of the conservators, a woman named Hanna Becker, who's a self-styled authority on Vermeer and is emphatic in her verdict that the painting is a forgery. But here's the snag: the only person who possesses the talent and skill required to forge a Vermeer that could pass for the genuine thing is Hanna Becker herself!
A pernickety job for the Golden Pair of Detection, Alexander and Norma Gold, but they can procure a six-digit paycheck if they can determine the paintings origin – whether it's an authentic Vermeer or a fraudulent imitation. However, there are two constituent elements frustrating Norma and Alexander in their investigation and one of these foils is the very man who has to sign that big paycheck.
Mr. Belmont has an incurable affinity for playing cat-and-mouse games and found a playmate in Alexander, but you have to read their intellectual fencing match for yourself – it's cerebral art! The other complication is the murder of the detested and corrupt director of the museum, Orville Pembrooke, who was found in his private dining room with his custom-made oyster knife protruding from the back of his neck – which drove a wedge between the atlas and the occiput.
"Aha," I hear you mutter, "another one of Resnicow's ingeniously and uniquely constructed locked rooms I have read so much about!" Well, yes and no. The murder of Pembrooke is not a traditional locked room mystery, since everyone had an opportunity to walk in on him and soil their hands, but there are some other features that suggest an impossible crime – depending on what your definition of that is. First of all, according to the medical evidence, Pembrooke didn't resist his assailant when the knife was planted in his neck and this person struck with tremendous force, but left Pembrooke's fingerprints on the handle un-smudged! And no, no, no, you have to give Resnicow more credit than that! The knife was neither dropped on/or thrown at Pembrooke. I'm inclinded to declare this as an impossible murder, but it's really up to the individuel reader to decide for themselves which label they will apply to this crime.
While the murder of the unpopular director provided an intriguing how-the-heck-was-it-done situation to the plot, I must admit that I found it less enthralling than the truth behind the re-emergence of an Old Dutch Master in New Amsterdam and how Resnicow avoided one of the familiar pitfalls found in detective stories with a plot focusing on a lost Shakespeare manuscript or a previously unknown piece of art – even though the illustration on the front cover suggests otherwise.
I also appreciated the picture Resnicow painted (pun fully intended) of what goes on behind the art-strewn walls of a museum and watch characters like Freya Larsen, chief conservator, at work as well as reading how she and her colleagues squall with pleasure at the fact that their boss is en route to the city morgue. They really couldn't be happier even if they were given Rembrandt's The Night Watch, and not openly reveling at his untimely, but welcome, passing is perceived as a suspicious act!
The Gold Frame might have one or two plot threads that will fail to completely excite you, but collectively they make for another riveting read that blends engaging storytelling and deft characterization with a touch of charming, unapologetic humor – making for an excellent piece of intelligent escapist fiction. I guess a term in obscurity is his punishment for refusing to explore the dark, frightening catacombs of the human psyche and not let Alexander's recovery put a strain on his marriage with Norma. That's what you get for daring to be entertaining in this day and age.
The Alexander and Norma Gold series:
The Gold Solution (1983)
The Gold Deadline (1984)
The Gold Frame (1986)
The Gold Curse (1986)
The Gold Gamble (1989)
The Ed and Warren Bear series:
The Dead Room (1987)
The Hot Place (1990)