Today it is my pleasure to welcome author Claudia Riess and her mystery novel, False Light: An Art History Mystery.
Academic sleuths Erika Shawn, art magazine editor, and Harrison Wheatley, a more seasoned art history professor, set out to tackle a brain teaser. This time the couple—married since their encounter in Stolen Light, first in the series—attempt to crack the long un-deciphered code of art forger Eric Hebborn (1934-1996), which promises to reveal the whereabouts of a number of his brilliant Old Master counterfeits. (Hebborn, in real life, was a mischievous sort, who had a fascination with letters and a love-hate relationship with art authenticators. I felt compelled to devise a puzzler on his behalf!)
After publication of his memoir, Drawn to Trouble, published in 1991, he encrypts two copies with clues to the treasure hunt. On each of the title pages, he pens a tantalizing explanatory letter. One copy he sends to an art expert; the second, he releases into general circulation. The catch: both books are needed to decipher the code.
When the books are at last united 25 years later, Erik and Harrison are enlisted to help unearth their hidden messages. But when several research aides are brutally murdered, the academic challenge leads to far darker mysteries in the clandestine world of art crime. As the couple navigate this sinister world, both their courage under fire and the stability of their relationship are tested.
False Light is a fun read, enhanced with a dose of real-life art history and made more interesting by the endearing romance of its two main characters.
The plot contains the requisite amount of clues, twists, and suspense, along with the genre-required action-filled climax, so I suspect most lovers of crime novels will enjoy it. However, I found its real charm to lie in three unexpected joys.
The first comes from Riess’s background. I have, at best, a passing acquaintance and mild interest in art, but I am captivated when an author brings expertise to a story like this. Claudia Riess helps her readers learn about masterpieces, forgeries, and auctions, without ever dumping information. (She got me looking into real-life art forger Eric Hebborn, and I’m always delighted to be introduced to a too-strange-to-be-fiction character.)
Another surprise is the relationship between the two lovers at the heart of this tale. They’ve gotten past the first hurdle of commitment (apparently in the previous novel) and now struggle to figure out how to live with their promises. I found their relationship compelling, and suspenseful in its own right. I appreciate an author who acknowledges falling in love is easy compared to making love work.
What didn’t I like? While the writing is generally okay, the pacing lags on occasion, particularly early on. Some parts required a little too much attention and rereading to follow multiple characters and complicated plot lines. Yet, none of this was enough of a problem to keep me from enjoying the story.
Years back, during a difficult time, I devoured J.D. Robb’s novels about a futuristic detective and her billionaire husband, and I realized there is this wonderful escapism involved in reading about the very wealthy solving crimes. (At least as long as they are nice people, which these characters are.) That brings me to the third pleasant surprise of this novel. Though Riess’s characters are unique to her story, their life of sumptuousness provided me with that same gentle nepenthe while their adventures held my interest.
As this virus has wreaked havoc with life, I’ve found myself eating rum raisin ice cream. That sweet treat is getting me through a lot these days. Why do I mention it here? Because when I finished this book I thought I’m glad I read this. In a world filled with too much frozen broccoli and canned soup — this is a rum raisin ice cream kind of a book. I plan to check out the author’s other flavors.
About the Author
Claudia Riess, a Vassar graduate, has worked in the editorial departments of The New Yorker and Holt, Rinehart, and Winston and has edited several art history monographs.
Find Claudia Riess at
Buy False Light: An Art History Mystery on Amazon. The book is on sale for only $0.99 during this tour.
Yes, there is a giveaway
Claudia Riess will be awarding a $50 Amazon or BN gift card to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.
This post is part of a tour sponsored by Goddess Fish. Check out all the other tour stops. If you drop by each of these and comment, you will greatly increase your chances of winning.
My Favorite Excerpt
Owen Grant was ebullient—“ripped with joy,” his beloved wife might have said. He smiled, remembering the flutter of her eyelids that accompanied her minted phrases. Now that she had died and his arthritis no longer permitted him to jog up a sweat, he satisfied his lust for life—which remained, five years after retirement, as vigorous as it had been in his teens—with voracious reading and clay sculpting. Today, however, he satisfied it with the Art and Antiques article that had set his heart racing when he’d come across it this morning while sifting through his mail. He stole another glance at the newsletter on the kitchen table. In the article, a used and rare book shop owner spoke about having acquired a copy of a memoir by Eric Hebborn, the infamous art forger. “It was in a carton I picked up at an estate sale,” the owner had said. “The author’s handwritten note on the title page literally blew my mind!”
Hebborn’s note was displayed in a photograph. Owen had recognized the handwriting at once. Imagine, after decades of searching for this copy of the book—placing ads in all the art magazines, later in their online versions, finally giving up—proof of it had fallen into his life as he was about to venture another sip of his scalding morning coffee.
Now it was 8:30 p.m., and there was nothing more to prepare for. Owen had contacted the shop owner—how young and breathless she had sounded!—and they had made plans to meet. He had invited his longtime friend and colleague, Randall Gray, to collaborate with him. Randall, twenty years his junior and still in the game, was more current in his knowledge of the world of art crime and eager to have a look at the book as well. Owen was on a skittering high, unable to concentrate on his usual avocations. Rather than wear a hole in the carpet pacing in circles, he opted for a walk in Central Park.
He headed for the nearest pedestrian entrance at Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street, two blocks from his luxury apartment building on 74th. There, he chose the rambling path leading to the Lake and Loeb Boathouse. It was a balmy night, on the warm side for mid-April. He might have stepped out in his shirtsleeves, but his conditioned urbanity, always at odds with his truer self, had held sway, and he had worn his suit jacket.
Aside from the couple strolling up ahead and the sound of laughter coming from somewhere south, Owen was alone. There had been an uptick of muggings lately, but his frisson of fear only piqued his excitement for the adventure shimmering on the horizon. As he walked, he silently chatted with his wife, Dotty, as he often did, so that their separation would not be absolute. He commented on the moonless night and looked up, for both of them, at the rarely visible canopy of stars. For a few seconds he was lost with her, until, without warning, he felt a hard object pressed against the back of his skull—the skull that held all memories, like Dotty’s fluttering eyelids and the smell of new clay. He knew what the object was without ever having touched one. He was a man of reason, not a fighter. He flung up his hands. “I have money. Let me get to it.”
There was no response. He reached into his pocket for his wallet—how warm the leather was against his thigh—and his keys jangled of homecomings, and the child in him whimpered please no, before the explosive pop of a champagne cork ended him and Dotty and all the rest of it.