Book Review: Lesson In Red by Maria Hummel

Less In Red by Maria Hummel is a savvy thriller that exposes dark questions about power and the art world and reveals the fatal mistakes that can befall those who threaten its status quo.

After the traumatic events recounted in Still Lives, the predecessor to Lesson In Red, our heroine, Maggie Richter, isn’t sure whether she wants to return to Los Angeles, much less to her old job overseeing copy for the Rocque Museum. She still harbors dreams of making it as an investigative journalist, so when the Rocque’s owner offers her a task that will keep her out of the office but within striking distance of a potentially explosive story, Maggie accepts, with reservations:

Inside, however, I felt raw and scraped and determined, a wintry version of me. I’d returned to L.A. because of the offer Janis had dangled—but now I wondered what I was signing up for. Janis wasn’t an editor. She was a rich, influential woman, used to getting her way. Say there was a real story behind Brenae’s death; would it be my story, or my benefactor’s? What power would I have to shape my reporting, to pitch magazines?

Janis Rocque wants Maggie to look into the apparent suicide of Brenae Brasil, a graduate student at the nearby Los Angeles Art College (LAAC), one of the country’s most prestigious art schools. Brenae was making a name for herself as a talented video artist who was unafraid to critique existing power structures. She was also developing a reputation for being unstable and difficult, so when she’s found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in her LAAC studio, efforts are made to sweep the entire thing under the carpet, including the destruction of some of her work.

Maggie can’t wrap her head around the idea that LAAC would do so little for, much less sabotage, the life and legacy of their rising star, but a colleague at the Rocque who’s more familiar with the campus is far less surprised.

“Let’s just say I heard that Brenae was about to make a very public criticism of their culture for women and minorities. I can’t tell you more than that, because I really don’t know. But Brenae was right, and I’m tired of what happens there.” Defeat did not sync well with Lynne’s usual proud, cool composure, and after a wobbly moment, she steeled her shoulders.

 

[The] dread I’d been feeling all night had transformed into something else. Anger? No, the sensation was too hardened and familiar. Here we were, two women, talking about another female victim, talking about our exhaustion with it, and then letting it go.

Sick of letting things like this go, Maggie takes the undercover role offered to her in order to ingratiate herself with Brenae’s closest friends—and possible suspects if Brenae was, indeed, murdered. She soon learns a lot more than she’d bargained for about LAAC and the art world politics that seem to have entangled and ultimately victimized Brenae. And as she becomes more familiar with Brenae’s work, an oeuvre that railed against the objectification and obliteration of the individual in service to seemingly high ideals that are actually fueled by the lowest of self-interests, Maggie has to come to terms with why she’s really investigating the other woman’s death. Is she trying to bring a killer to justice, or is she herself trying to materially profit from the aftermath of a vibrant young woman’s demise?

Lesson In Red is a remarkably thought-provoking work that examines turn-of-the-century art-world mores through a critical feminist lens. Centering on tragic Brenae and her provocative video installations, the narrative unfolds from there into an elegant critique of exploitation and victim-blaming as Maggie has to struggle with her own complicity in seeing Brenae as merely a means to an end. The book is also shot through with the psychology of uneven power dynamics and how those have manifested in Western art and art commerce of recent centuries. It’s not the usual setting for a thriller, but Maria Hummel’s engaging writing gives the rarefied air of the L.A. art scene the perfect noir tint as she constructs this clever murder mystery—though, I would recommend reading Still Lives first for added depth.

And I can’t review either without mentioning the cover art and design for both books, which are exceptional. Arresting and perfectly suited to the subject matter, they rank amongst artist Jaya Miceli’s best book cover works.

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