Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990; 191 pages
This is the first of a series of highly knowledgable detective novels by an art historian about the art world. Set in Rome, it features the perpetually beset General Bottando of the Italian National Aft Theft Squad; his glamorous assistant, Flavia di Stefano; and Jonathan Argyll, a British art historian.
When Jonathan is arrested for breaking into an obscure church in Rome, he claims that it contains a long-lost Raphael hidden under a painting by Mantini. Further investigation reveals that the painting has disappeared. Then it miraculously reappears in the hands of the top British art dealer, Edward Byrnes. How has Byrnes found out about the hidden masterpiece, and whom is he acting for? There is also the curious matter of the safety-deposit box full of sketches closely resembling certain features of the newly discovered painting. A hideous act of vandalism occurs, then murder. Bottando faces the most critical challenge of his career, and Jonathan and Flavia find themselves in unexpected physical danger.
Not a lot to say about this one. It was a nice, fast read, and mostly very enjoyable. Great settings, and plenty of talk about art and art history, which I liked a lot. Not a lot of action through most of the book – or, at least, not as much as you'd find in most police procedurals. Actually, I thought this book had more of a cozy mystery feel to it – not a bad thing, in my opinion.
Since this was the first book in a series, a lot of time was taken in introducing characters and setting things up. I liked the character of Jonathan Argyll very much – loved the way he hid his cleverness behind a dithery, slightly pedantic professorial facade. I wasn't as taken with the Flavia character, but she wasn't obnoxious and the little romance between the two was cute and not overdone.
This was a fun book, and looks to be a very appealing series. I'm looking forward to reading some of the later books and spending more time with Jonathan and Flavia as they fight crime and corruption in the wonderful world of art.