The Collection by Lance Charnes is an art thriller and the 1st book in the DeWitt Agency Files series (Available November 14, 2016).
The Collection’s plot begins four years ago at an auction in Geneva, Switzerland. On the block is a landscape painting by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot. Ex-architect Matt Friedrich is in the audience shilling—ensuring the bids go as far above the reserve as possible—which he admits, in first-person narration, isn’t exactly legit.
But the higher he can get another bidder to climb over that line, the more he ends up pocketing. He manages to pull in $15,750, which should go a long way in alleviating his burdensome personal debt. Should being the operative word … it doesn’t.
He gets caught by the authorities. He serves a fourteen-month sentence, his wife leaves him (though that’s not the worse of his troubles), and now, any money he makes at his minimum-wage Starbucks gig goes back to paying for his crimes. He rooms with a woman named Chloe. No hanky-panky between them, just platonic roomies. He decides, at Chloe’s urging, to contact a one-night stand he had while in Geneva, named Allyson DeWitt, who had mentioned she was in need of art specialists. He knows little else about her but contacts her for a rendezvous, which she accepts.
Allyson stands when I arrive at the table. Looking at her for real, I see my memory's Photoshopped her a bit. She's not beautiful or gorgeous. She's striking, the kind of woman everyone in the room turns to look at when she enters. Presence, not looks.
Allyson is clinical, quickly establishing, “This is a business meeting.” It’s a cold fish in the face because feelings were awakened upon seeing her. But since he's as down and out as one can slink, he agrees to never mention their relationship to any of the other employees in her company. (Are you being played, Matthew? Normally while reading something of this nature, I would mumble to the protagonist to run—get out of there, Matt, she's a femme fatale! But he is a born loser, and I doubt it would make any difference in his case. Also, it’s generally at this a point in a story where I begin to take pride in knowing more than the protagonist. But not this time.)
The meeting is a bit odd because he is looking for a job and isn't quite sure what she does. Though she seems to know he's looking to make some money the old fashion way: dishonestly. It makes one wonder why has she agreed to meet him—is she truly hard up for help or is he a fall guy of some sort?
She’s very cryptic when she states, “I do things for people who need things to be done.” Allyson eventually hires him and gives him a first assignment in Brussels. His cover is posing as a rich man named Hoskins who partnered in a development company that was bought out in 2007 before the pin popped the stock market balloon. Matt gets to play the part in high style at the swank Sofitel Brussels Le Louise. An anonymous note left for him instructs, “Don't leave your room until I get there.” Of course, he does exactly as he shouldn’t and is reprimanded by Carson, who shows up calling herself Matt's babysitter.
Carson has quite the chip on her shoulder because she’s not getting paid her normal amount, since she has to split her take with Matthew, and that’s creating some bad blood toward him. After Matt cautiously relays his knowledge of the case, he contemplates whether Carson will take this morsel of knowledge and, given her experience, finish the job without him.
In a bold move, Matt calls Olivia to get info on Carson. Olivia serves as a go-between for Allyson and her foot soldiers in the field (reminded me at first, just a little, of Lawrence Block’s Dot from the Kellar series), providing them with logistical support and making sure they stay within budget. Skating rinks and street markets are Carson’s thing, Olivia passes along, and in an amusing departure, he attempts to steer her to one of those activities to melt the ice, which works to a degree.
Back to the work at hand: someone is fencing stolen paintings. Allyson’s client believes there are more of these paintings waiting to be sold, worth millions, and they are tasked with finding them. A phony meeting is set up for Matt, posing as Hoskins, to sign the paperwork as the latest client of Knoedler & Preiss Law Firm in Luxembourg City, at the headquarters for all five companies involved in the stolen-art sales. Matt’s rich commentary opens a window to this shady world:
Want to bring your foreign money into the U.S. without alerting the Feds? Box up your artwork, put “Reproduction - $100 value” on the shipping label, and Customs won't charge you duties or even inspect your shipment. Send it to or from the free port at Geneva or Singapore or Luxembourg City, convert it to cash, and buy something nice for the missus, like a small South Pacific Island.
As he signed the documents, Carson was pulling a “Mission Impossible” in Knoedler & Preiss’s file room, swiping data on the company’s crooked dealings. Those findings, and others, reveal the possibility that Matt might come face to face with an old adversary—Geoff Belknap, who he had sold out to the Feds to save his own hide. Matt explains, “He was the scumbag who handled art deals for people who were too dirty for the rest of us.”
Maybe it can be chalked it up to my lack of knowledge into the darker, criminal aspects of the art world, but I couldn’t make heads or tails which way the plot was headed for a good portion of the read. Even when I finally got a grip on its true north, it was just as enjoyable.
Lance Charnes’s The Collection is a breezy read in the way the very early Leslie Charteris's Saint novels were breezy: entertaining with an underlining of grit below the surface. The subtitle is The DeWitt Associates Project Files #1, and I’m certainly looking forward to more adventures in this budding series.
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David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.