TOUR, EXCERPT, GUEST POST & #GIVEAWAY - False Light (Art History Mystery #2) by Claudia Riess
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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.
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“You must try a crostini,” came a vaguely familiar voice from above. Harrison looked up, surprised to encounter the striking figure of Aldo Fabbri pressing forward a fair young tray-bearer, his hand at the small of her back.
Harrison’s love fest with Florence was instantly tarnished. “Good to see you,” he said nevertheless, extending his hand to Aldo before plucking an hors d’oeuvre of bread and chicken liver pate from the waitress’s tray. “Come sit down,” he suggested with a near-genuine smile.
“Certamente,” said Aldo. “But first we must request the wine—from the Fabbri vineyard, of course.” Aldo turned to the waitress. “Per favore, a bottle of the Chianti Classico riserva,” he slickly commanded, with a proprietary ogle. “As you might recall,” he said, turning back to Harrison, “it’s our signature wine, made from the Sangiovese grape. This year’s crop”—he glanced heavenward—“supremo!” With a nod, he dismissed the waitress, then pulled out a chair.
“I didn’t see you at the conference,” Harrison said, trying not to recollect in vivid detail Aldo’s play for Erika’s affections at their encounter in Tuscany over a year ago. The seduction attempt had taken place when he and Erika had visited the Fabbri estate as part of their art recovery mission. Erika had not succumbed to Aldo’s efforts, but her moment of hesitation had caused Harrison great consternation. What a presumptive asshole! he silently hurled at himself. Erika had been in the initial stages of breaking free of her mistrust in men because of what she was beginning to see in Harrison, and he had not shown her the least bit of empathy in response. “The lecture hall was rather crowded,” he said, thrusting his attention to the subject at hand. “Perhaps you were hiding in the rear?”
“Alas, I arrived too late to attend the talks,” Aldo said, smoothing back his coal black mane.
He’s lost the golden highlights, Harrison realized. Gives the bastard a less flighty look.
“However, I did hear your talk on Gericault was admirable—ah, here’s our wine,” Aldo noted, at the waitress’s approach.
The wine was uncorked; the glasses filled; hearty samples downed; Harrison’s authentic praise begrudgingly delivered.
“To a successful book tour!” Aldo sang, raising his glass. “Salute!”
As they clicked glasses, Aldo cocked his head, as if at a sound in the distance. “I’m wondering. Whatever became of that woman you were with—Erika Shawn was her name, una donna molto bella e special! As I recall, a free spirit finding herself tethered to Puritanism, or merely conflicted by it. Either way, a pity.”
“Tethered to me, if you must know,” Harrison said, as coolly as his clenched jaw would allow. “As my wife.”
“Ah, lucky man to have tamed her!” Aldo looked about. “But where is she? Another toast is in order!”
“Back home, in New York. Working.”
“Yes?” Aldo gave him a bemused smile. “Quite a long tether, I’d say.”
Do you agree with the adage “Write what you know”?
The literal context of “knowing”—places you’ve lived, people you’ve met, transformative experiences you’ve had— is a memoir, in which you’re kind of obligated to stick with your substantive and interior life story. If you’re writing a novel, however, you can write about whatever moves or compels you to write.
Warning. This can sometimes be misunderstood. Especially if you’re writing a novel containing anything resembling erotica. I ran into that problem with my first novel, a psycho-sexual odyssey of a married woman struggling to gain independence. I can only guess the number of readers (including my mother-in-law) who confronted me with queries and declarations that revealed their theories—no, assumptions!—that I myself had experienced such an odyssey, although nothing could be further from the truth. I was the president of the local school board at the time, which made matters stickier.
Interesting,how nobody would ever entertain the thought that Thomas Harris is a serial killer or that Stephen King had ever run across an evil demon posing as a clown. I suppose because those behaviors are more wildly aberrant than the ones I explored in that first novel. In any event, the question arises: how can an author create a fictional character totally unlike him or her, either in temperament or life experiences? I think it’s because of his or her ability to explore, stretch and reshape those basic emotions and physical sensations animating, in varying ratios, each of us.
In the broader sense of “knowing”—understanding invented characters, breathing the air in places you’ve never been—you know more than you think you know. Characters you’ve never laid eyes on and events you’ve never experienced, when informed by your basic emotions and corporeal stirrings and shaped by your ability to empathize, can become every bit as real—as known—as those elicited in your memoir.
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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.