There is little that I enjoy more than a good thriller, but it’s even better when the subject matter is suffused with extraordinary originality. This is a quality that the little known Cuban author José Carlos Somoza possesses in spades. There are very few writers around with half the imagination, ingenuity and creativity that Somoza exhibits in his novels.
Somoza has written about a dozen books, but only three of them have so far been translated into English, even though the first, “The Athenian Murders”, won the 2003 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award. This was both a murder mystery and a rumination on the relationships between translators and ancient texts. Born in Havana, Somoza trained as a psychiatrist in Spain before becoming a full-time writer. This education is put to good use in developing his themes and character profiles, allowing him to indulge in many philosophical and psychological games. His work is dazzlingly clever, seductive, intellectual and occasionally disturbing.
“The Art of Murder” is built on a particularly audacious and compelling concept, working well as a darkly absorbing thriller, but equally providing a thought-provoking treatise on the art world. The book is set in the near future, in an alternative universe where everything is the same as ours, except for the art scene where living people are being used as canvases for each masterpiece.
Very different from a straightforward whodunit, Somoza still manages to build an atmosphere of tension and suspense with great skill and the last section in particular explodes into life. However, his real achievement is to create a weird world of deviant ideas about humanity and aesthetics and yet make it an utterly believable environment into which we are gently seduced like so many amoral voyeurs. It’s an enthralling piece of fiction, nay literature, which will make most readers question the ethics of the art world and haunt their thoughts long after they’ve finished it.
The story’s background is a morally dubious art world whose market is dominated by hyperdramatic art, where beautiful young models are prepared and painted just like a canvas. Wealthy collectors buy the pieces, which pose for a few hours each day, either in private collections or public exhibitions. Any work can be replaced by new models, but the first one is the most valuable, as he/she is the original. The undisputed master of this new movement is Bruno van Tysch and the story begins when the model for one of his masterpieces, Annek Hollech, is abducted and viciously murdered, in spite of elaborate and extensive security precautions. Investigators April Wood and Lothar Bosch must discover the killer before the imitations of thirteen of Rembrandt’s great works are put on show (and therefore at risk) in Amsterdam in the largest ever exhibition of hyperdramatism.
The process of hyperdramatic art is superbly described; so much so that you could be forgiven for starting to believe that it actually exists. Before being painted, each canvas (person) has to be primed, with their eyebrows, eyelashes and other bodily hair removed, and then “stretched”. During this arduous stage, the painter will physically and emotionally challenge the model, subjecting her to various degrees of degradation and violence, in order to prepare the proverbial blank canvas, a trance-like state of quiescence, before obtaining exactly the right expression on her face. The model will then be arranged into the desired pose that she will have to maintain for a few hours each day for the duration of the exhibition. To facilitate this unnatural state, the model is provided with muscle relaxation drugs to improve flexibility and endurance; medications to control the bodily functions (sweating, salivating and the rest); and body creams to protect the skin from the oil paints.
"She's a model and she's looking good"
That sounds bad enough, but there is a darker side to hyperdramatism. Aspiring and unsuccessful models are illegally painted as “objects”, such as lamps, chairs and tables. Even worse are the “art shocks”, where acts of pornography and brutality are reflected by “performance” models, who periodically move their poses. There are also rumours of young children being kidnapped to be used as canvases. All this before a killer, known as “The Artist”, sets out to destroy van Tysch’s masterpieces.
The dehumanising of the models is intensely unsettling. When they are not working, the models have personalities and interesting past histories, but once they have signed up to be a canvas, they become objects to be purchased and looked at. They are no longer referred to as people, becoming distinctly disposable, even though they may be worth millions as an artwork.
Being a masterpiece has something ... inhuman about it. Art uses us, my child, it uses us in order to exist, but it’s like an alien being. That’s what you’ve got to think: you’re not human when you are a painting. We have to destroy the human being in order to create the work. You don't need to know anything. You are the work of art. The only one who needs to know is the artist.
However, what is even more disconcerting is that the models not only accept all of the suffering and humiliation, but they actively welcome it. They regard themselves as being engaged in a serious artistic endeavour and their greatest desire is to be painted by a genius. They are willing to tolerate all the physical sacrifices and psychological brushstrokes (delicate caresses of the ego, probing questions and harsh insults) to be part of the artistic process, taking suffering for their art to a cult-like extreme.
She detested the instructions vulgar artists gave her, but if a painter she admired asked her to do something crazy, whatever it might be, she liked to obey without question. And that ‘whatever it might be’ recognised few limits. She was obsessed with discovering how far she would allow herself to go if the ideal situation occurred.
It is difficult to understand the mindset of a person who would want to be painted in this manner, effectively losing their own identity and becoming an object. Yes, the models are well paid and the best of them enjoy pampered lives when they are off duty, but what they really (really) want is to be considered a great piece of art. Each one desperately wishes to be the first canvas of a famous painting, the one that people will remember, even if a hundred other canvases become that painting later on.
"My blue period"
One such model is Clara, depicting a living version of Rembrandt’s “Susanna”, whose transformation is described in great detail. Her name is used in the original Spanish title for the book, “Clara y la penumbra” (Clara and the half-light), though this can also mean Light and Gloom, which is highly relevant to the novel’s message, as explained by the Dutch master, Bruno van Tysch:
We understand that day and night, and life and death too, perhaps, are merely different points in the play of light and shade. We discover that truth, the only truth worthy of the name, is shade.
There are clear parallels here with our own contemporary culture of celebrity, where beautiful young men and women will make any sacrifice, starting with their own dignity, to secure their tiresome fifteen minutes of fame. Just think of the conveyor belt of witless women who are pathetically grateful for any crumbs from the celebrity table, but also consider that the great British public (you and me) appear only too happy to follow their miserable lives in excruciating detail. The most highly prized works of hyperdramatic art are young women, who are generally partially clothed or naked, but youth is an ephemeral dream, so their shelf-life is a short one, leading to inflated demand for the crème de la crème. This is not a million miles away from the “real” fashion world, so the book succeeds admirably as a knowing critique of a society that invests so much in appearance, treating people as commodities to be bought and sold.
"Chapter One - we didn't really get along"
The book raises many interesting questions on what is morally acceptable when creating groundbreaking works of art – are there any limits? How far should artists be allowed to go to produce something spectacular? Can hyperdramatism really be considered cruel if the models are queuing up to become canvases? If we continue to desire hyper-realism, is hyperdramatic art the logical conclusion? And, most significantly, is art more important than a person’s life?
The debate on the value of art against a human life is taken a stage further in the book, when it becomes clear that the killing of a model is not seen as a murder by the art world, but as the destruction of a masterpiece worth millions. The hunt for the murderer is driven less by the loss of life, more by the value of the painting:
This, she shook the photo in his face, which apparently shows a young girl, is not a girl at all. It cost more than fifty million dollars. She repeated the words again, emphasising them with a pause between each one. Fifty. Million. Dollars.
However much the work cost, she was still a young girl, April.
That's where you're wrong. It cost that much precisely because it was not a girl. It was a painting, Lothar. A masterpiece. Do you still not get it? We are what other people pay us to be. This was once a girl. Then someone paid to turn her into a painting. Paintings are paintings, and people can destroy them with portable canvas cutters just as you might destroy documents in your shredding machine, without worrying about it. To put it simply, they are not people. Not for the person who did this to her, and not for us.
This world has become so crazy that even the act of murder is considered by some to have been executed in the name of art.
"Should have gone to Specsavers"
Somoza’s bleak view of the art world is articulated by van Tysch, the greatest hyperdramatic artist of them all, who says, “Art is nothing more than money”. Indeed, in his Author’s Note, he wryly asserts, “if someone discovers how to make money out of (hyperdramatism), it will not be moral considerations that prevent this human market from flourishing in the same or even more spectacular fashion as in my novel”. The art world in the book is well connected and secretive, so much so that the murders are not made public, for fear that this would cause panic among the models and those buying the art. As 10cc once sang: “Art for art’s sake/Money for God’s sake”.
Somoza’s thrilling prose paints the picture with fine strokes, using a sensualist’s eye for shade, colour, texture and skin tone to conjure up a living, breathing atmosphere in each scene. In this, he is reminiscent of Patrick Süskind’s “Perfume”, an equally evocative exploration of a surreal world similar to our own – weird yet captivating, disturbing yet memorable. There are also shades of Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" in this potent cocktail of action, intrigue, emotional drama and sexual tension. The tale would make a fabulously decadent movie, but would absolutely require a director like Guillermo del Toro to make the fantasy elements work.
"Everybody's happy nowadays"
“The Art of Murder” is a clever, intricate and extremely provocative thriller that is full of surprises. Ostensibly a murder mystery, it’s also a fascinating, chilling vision that will slowly draw you in and make you reflect on a number of moral issues. As is so often the case, Oscar Wilde was ahead of the game when he declared, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life”.