The Death Artist

The Death Artist

4.5 12
by Jonathan Santlofer

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Murder is a fine art…

A killer is preying on New York's art community, creating gruesome depictions of famous paintings, using human flesh and blood as his media. Terror stalks this world of genius, greed, inspiration, and jealousy -- a world Kate McKinnon knows all too well. A former NYPD cop who traded in her badge for a Ph.D in art history, Kate can

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Murder is a fine art…

A killer is preying on New York's art community, creating gruesome depictions of famous paintings, using human flesh and blood as his media. Terror stalks this world of genius, greed, inspiration, and jealousy -- a world Kate McKinnon knows all too well. A former NYPD cop who traded in her badge for a Ph.D in art history, Kate can see the method behind the psychopath's madness -- for the grisly slaughter of a former protégé is drawing her into the predator's path. And as each new murder exceeds the last in savagery, Kate is trapped in the twisted obsessions of the death artist, who plans to use her body, her blood, and her fear to create the ultimate masterpiece.

Editorial Reviews
The Barnes & Noble Review
Wedging himself stylistically between the gritty works of Michael Connelly and the high-octane plots of James Patterson, noted New York painter Jonathan Santlofer expands his palette to include the written word and cunningly crafts an absorbing portrait of obsession with The Death Artist, his debut thriller.

Former New York cop Kate McKinnon lives a life of wealth and luxury she never would have dreamed possible. Following her marriage to an elite businessman, her post-police career as an art historian has skyrocketed her to fame and fortune. Her life is perfect, until a young woman is murdered and a close friend of Kate's becomes the prime suspect. Kate's old police instincts naturally reemerge as she delves into the case. Soon, two other murders related to the New York art world occur, and Kate finds that the killer -- now known as "the Death Artist" -- is communicating with her, leaving clues such as Polaroids and jumbled pieces of artwork. Somehow, Jacques-Louis David's famous painting The Death of Marat is at the heart of the murder spree, but how so?

There are so many suspects among the large cast of characters, you'll never see the complex twists of plot coming in this intense first novel, which moves so quickly you might suffer friction burns turning the pages to keep up. Tom Piccirilli

Publishers Weekly
Painter Santlofer turns his artists eye to murder in an alternately brutal and dishy debut whodunit about a New York cop-turned-art historian tracking down a serial killer who mutilates his victims to make them look like famous paintings. While many in the ostentatiously elegant cast of self-serving artists, curators, patrons and patronesses hide ugly secrets, only one takes the idea of the tortured artist to the extreme. His first victim, a museum board president with a taste for sadomasochism, is found in his bathtub, arm draped over the side in the same pose as David's Marat. Inspired by both traditional and modern art and sensitive to color, line and light, the death artist next slashes the face of a female victim to match a Picasso portrait. Its enough to horrify but not to deter ex-homicide detective Kate McKinnon Rothstein, now a wealthy, beautiful hostess of her own PBS series. She puts her talents and her marriage to the test to pursue a criminal who seems to crave her appreciation for his handiwork. The exploration of the psychology of the death artist, along with gossipy insights into the politics of art, make this book a bloody funfest for the museum and gallery crowd, never mind that as Kate investigates sexual liaisons that cross social and moral boundaries, she uncovers an array of suspense novel clichés. When Santlofer, a Pratt graduate, NEA grant recipient and Yaddo board member, airs his insider views, his observations of art and the art world lift this enthusiastic if not totally original mystery to the ranks of a high-class art opening. Agent, Suzanne Gluck. (Sept.) Forecast: An unusual nine-city author tour centering on museums and galleries (including the Whitney in New York) should rouse art-world interest in Santlofers debut. Foreign rights sold in France and Japan. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Santlofer is a painter, so it's no stretch that the heroine of his debut thriller has a Ph.D. in art history and hosts a tony PBS show. But she was once a cop, and she brings out her guns (at least figuratively) when a serial killer begins stalking the art world. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
“Fine portrait...evocative thriller.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Keep[s] readers guessing all the way up to the conclusion.”
“An intellectual conundrum posed with visceral immediacy.”
St. Petersburg Times
Washington Post Book World
USA Today
“A crime novel that is savage and erudite, layered in wit, satire and psychosis—in short, a chilling read.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“A rollercoaster. . .shows a sure sense of pace and an engaging literary style.”
Book Street
“A juicy ride.”
Nelson DeMille
“A very original look at murder...a smart and sophisticated thriller.”
Phillip Margolin
“THE DEATH ARTIST is a fast, fun read.”
Susan Isaacs
“THE DEATH ARTIST is stylish, scary and very, very smart. Jonathan Santlofer’s thriller really thrills.”
Marcia Tucker
“An art history lesson from the dark side.”
Judd Tully
“Spellbinding, sexy and savage.”
People Magazine
"Fine portrait...evocative thriller."

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Kate McKinnon Novels , #1
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Even before it all went bad she had the feeling it was going to be a rotten day. She blamed it on the headache, the one she'd woken up with. But even later, as the headache eased, the feeling, almost a sense of foreboding, remained. Still, she'd made it through the day. Maybe, she thought, the night would be better.

She was wrong.

"How about something to drink, maybe some coffee?" He smiles.

"I should be getting home."

He looks at his watch. "It's only eight-thirty. Come on. I'll buy you a cup of the best cappuccino in town."

Maybe she says yes because the headache is finally gone, or because the day has turned out much better than she expected, or because she doesn't feel like being alone, not right now.

"Let's walk a bit."

The night air is cool, a little damp. She shivers in her thin cotton jacket.

"Cold?" He puts his arm around her shoulders. She's not sure she wants him to, turns the thought over in her mind, sighs audibly.


She smiles weakly. "Nothing you'd understand."

Her comment annoys him. Why wouldn't I understand? He drops his arm from her shoulders -- she wonders, why? -- and they continue along another block, lined with restaurants and midsize brownstones, in silence, until she says, "Maybe it's simpler if I just catch a cab home."

He takes her arm, gently stops her. "Come on. It's just coffee."

"I think I should go."

"Okay. But I'll see you home."

"Don't be ridiculous. I can get home by myself."

"No. I insist. We'll take a cab, grab a cappuccino in your neighborhood. How's that?"

She sighs, doesn't have the energy to argue.

In the cab, neither speaks; be looks out the window, she stares at her hands.

The Starbucks on her corner is locked; the kid inside, mopping up, waves them off through the glass.

"Damn. I really wanted some coffee." He looks at her, sad, like a little boy, then offers up his best smile.

"Oh, okay. You win." She smiles, too. "I'll make us some."

At the front door to her building she fumbles with her keys, gets one in the lock, but the door eases open before she even turns the key.

"Everything's falling apart around here. They're doing construction, keep breaking everything. I'd complain to the super, but he's worthless."

On the second floor they have to step around stacks of wood and electrical supplies.

I think they're making two apartments into one. Hoping for a big rent, I guess. It's been going on for weeks, driving me crazy with the noise."

On the third floor, she unlocks a dead bolt, then a police lock.

He walks past her into the apartment, immediately removes his coat, drops it on a chair, is making himself way too comfortable, she thinks. He sits down on her sofa -- a layer of thick foam covered with a bold cotton print with pillows she'd bought on Fourteenth Street, one with a stenciled portrait of Elvis, the other of Marilyn. He runs his finger over Marilyn's garish red mouth, back and forth, back and forth.

She realizes she still has her coat on, removes it, hangs it on a hook behind the front door, turns the dead bolt then slides the police lock into place. "Habit. You know." She smiles, nervously, turns into the kitchenette, a rectangular alcove attached to the living room, no bigger than a closet. She pulls a chain, and a light bulb illuminates the half-sized refrigerator, two-burner stove, tiny sink, a shelf with a toaster oven and a drip coffee machine. She removes the top half of the coffeemaker, takes out a soggy brown filter, tosses it into a small plastic trash can.

"Can I help?"

"It's way too small in here. I'm okay.

She can feel him watching her in the tiny kitchen as she gets the coffee going; becomes self-conscious about the way she moves, the swaying of her hair. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.

When she comes back into the living room, she chooses the hard-backed chair at her computer table across from the couch. "Coffee'll be ready in a minute." He looks up at her, smiles, says nothing. She plays with a loose thread at the cuff of her blouse, tries to think of a way to fill the silence. "How about some music?" She stands up, takes the few necessary steps to the CDplayer in the corner on the floor. "My one luxury."

He crosses the room, kneels beside her, plucks a disc from the neat stack. "Play this."

"Billie Holiday," she says, taking the CD from his hand. "She kills me."

Kills me kills me kills me kills me kills me kills me...The words echo in his brain.

A clarinet pipes out through two small speakers, followed by Billie's inimitable, soulful whine. The first lines of "God Bless the Child" fill the room with an unspeakable sadness.

He watches her kneeling beside him, humming along, head tilted, hair spilling over the side of her face. He's been watching her all night, thinking about this, planning. But now he's not sure. Start it all again? It's been so long. He's been so good. But when he reaches out and touches her hair, he knows it is already too late.

She jerks her head back, immediately stands up.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you," he says, careful to keep his voice calm as he watches her, enjoying the way she moves, like a cat, jumpy, skittish. But when he sees her standing above him, looking down at him as though he were some kind of inferior being, there is no longer anything remotely kittenish about her. A flash of anger spreads through his body, and he's ready.

"I'll get the coffee." She turns away, but he grabs hold of her arm. "Hey," she says. "Cut it out."

He lets go, puts his hands up in a sign of truce, tries the smile on her again.

She folds her arms across her chest. "I think you should go."

But he settles back onto her couch, locks his hands behind his head, a grin on his lips. "Let's not make this into a big deal, okay?"

"Some things are. But I don't want to discuss it right now and ... I doubt you'd understand."

"No? Why is that? Ohhh...wait, I think I'm getting it."

"Just go." She holds her defiant pose.

"I know," he says. "I'm the bad guy, right, and you're the innocent, put-upon woman. Oh, sure. Real innocent." He stands. "Well, let me tell you something..."

"Hey. Relax," she says, trying to regain control of the situation. "It's cool."

"Cool?" He repeats the word as if it had no meaning for him.

Do it!

"Just a minute!" he shouts.

"What?" she asks, but can see he is not really speaking to her, his eyelids fluttering as though he were going into some kind of trance.

He takes a step forward, hands clenched.

She drops her stance, makes a dash for the door. She's scrambling with the police lock when he lunges. She tries to scream, but he's got his hand pressed -- hard -- across her mouth.

Then he is all over her, pulling at her arms, shouting, mumbling, his voice harsh, unrecognizable. He stretches her arms above her head. She is surprised at his strength, but manages to wrench a hand free, smacks him in the mouth. A thin line of blood trickles over his lip. He doesn't seem to notice, knocks her to the floor, pins both her arms under his knees, all his weight holding them down, freeing up his arms to tear at her blouse, to grope at her breasts. She tries to kick but can't connect, her legs just thrash in the air.

Then he grabs her chin, leans down, presses his mouth against hers. She tastes his blood. She wrenches her head back, spits in his face, hears herself scream: "I'll kill you!"

He hits her hard in the face, then moves off her, stands beside the couch looking down. "How shall we do this?" he asks. "Nice or ... not so nice?"

She is seeing double, unable to right herself, feeling close to being sick.

Then he is on top of her again, rubbing himself against her, cursing. She bites into the Marilyn pillow, concentrates on Billie Holiday.

But now his movements have become frantic, his cursing louder, and she is aware of the fact that there has been no penetration, and feels a sense of relief.

He rolls off her, says, "You just didn't get me hot," and pulls his pants up. It was a mistake.

Of course it's a mistake. Stick to the plan.She pushes her skirt down.

"The new tough he says, fumbling for words, anything to soothe his damaged ego. "So tough she can't satisfy a man."

She tries to think straight, just wants him out. "Yes," she says. "You're right, I -- I'm sorry. It wasn't you, I -- "

He grabs her face, turns her toward him. "What? What did you say?" She tries to push his hand off, but can't. "You patronizing me? Me! You fucking little slut!" He lets go of her face and then the slap comes so fast that for a moment she is stunned, then she screams.

"Get out! Get the fuck outta here!" She lunges for the phone. But he's too fast for her. He wrenches it off the end table. The cord jumps in the air as it's torn from the socket. Then he's got her by the hair and around the waist, practically dragging her into the kitchen; the scorching glass of the coffeemaker is scalding her naked back. He slams her against the wall. The coffeemaker falls; boiling coffee splashes against her ankles. She tries to scratch his face, misses, and he punches her hard.

An image of herself as a young girl in a white confirmation dress floods her mind; and then the white turns gray, and then everything is black.

He hardly remembers his hand finding the knife in the shallow sink, but the girl is quiet now. She's on the floor, one leg twisted under her, one straight out in front, and there is blood everywhere -- splattered on the stove, cabinets, floor. He can't even remember the color of her blouse, it's all stained a deep, gorgeous red. Pinkish saliva bubbles from the corners of her mouth. Her eyes are wide open, staring at him in surprise. He returns her vacant stare.

How long has it been? Has anyone heard them? He listens for sirens, televisions, radios, signs of life from other apartments, but hears nothing. He feels lucky. Yes, I've always been lucky.

He rasps, "What a mess," his throat gone dry. He finds a pair of Playtex gloves beside the sink, squeezes his bloodied hands into them, washes the knife thoroughly and drops it into a drawer; then removes his shoes so he won't track bloody footprints, and places them on the shelf beside the toaster oven. He tears a few paper towels off a roll, balls them up, squirts them with liquid detergent, and works his way around the apartment cleaning off everything he can remember touching. He even takes the Billie Holiday disc off the player, puts it back in its sleeve, slips it into the middle of a stack of CDs.

He checks the couch for anything he might have dropped, anything torn off, buttons, even hairs. He sees a few hairs which he thinks are the girl's but just to be safe he takes the Dustbuster from the wall in the kitchenette and goes over the couch several times, then towels it off, replaces it.

Unconsciously, he touches his lip, feels the soreness, remembers the kiss.

Back in the kitchenette, he takes a sponge from the sink, squirts it with more detergent, washes blood off the dead girl's lips, then shoves the sponge in and out of her mouth.

He lifts her lifeless hand. Nail polish? No, blood. Mine or hers? But here the sponge refuses to do the job, traces of red cling stubbornly beneath her nails. He jams the sponge into his pant pocket, right on top of the damp wad of paper toweling -- the moisture oozes through the fabric and onto his thigh. Then he removes a small leather-bound manicure set from his inner pocket -- one he always carries with him -- and sets to work with his fine metal tools. Ten minutes later the girl's nails are not only spotless, but finely shaped. He takes a momentto admire his handiwork. Then, using his cuticle scissors, he carefully snips a lock of the girl's hair and presses it into his shirt pocket, just above his heart.

He moves in closer, touches her cheek. His gloved finger comes away bright scarlet. That's it!

Now, starting at the temple, his cherry fingertip creeps down her cheek, slowly, precisely, stopping once for a quick dip into the pool of blood on the girl's chest, then continuing just beside her ear, looping a bit before coming to rest at the sharp edge of the dead girl's jaw.


Now he needs something useful.

In the tiny bedroom, he takes a moment to consider a painting above the bed. Too big. Perhaps the large black crucifix on a heavy silver chain? He slides it from one gloved hand to another like a child's Slinky toy, before dropping it back into the dresser drawer.

But it's the small plastic photo album, which, after a glimpse at its contents, he decides is just the thing.

Back at the door he undoes the police lock and dead bolt, puts on his shoes, then his long raincoat.

In the hall, just outside the apartment, he hesitates. On the first floor, the drone of television dialogue, "Laura, honey, I'm home and canned laughter. He moves stealthily down the hall and out the front door. It closes behind him with a dull thud.

On the street, with gloved hands thrust deep in his pockets, he concentrates on walking at a casual pace, keeping his head down. Six or seven blocks from the dead girl's apartment he manages to work one of the gloves off his hand while it's still in his pocket; once it's free, he hails a cab.

He tells the driver where he's going, surprised at the calm of his voice.

Did it really happen? Was it some kind of hallucination? He's never quite sure. Maybe it was all a dream. But then he feels the wetness against his thigh, and the plastic glove still on one hand -- and they're real enough.

The muscles in his neck and jaw clench; for a moment his entire body shudders.

Is this what he wanted? He can hardly remember.

Too late now. It's done. Finished.

He catches his reflection in the taxicab's streaky window.

No, he thinks, it's just the beginning.

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What People are saying about this

Nelson DeMille
“A very original look at murder...a smart and sophisticated thriller.”
Marcia Tucker
“An art history lesson from the dark side.”
Phillip Margolin
“THE DEATH ARTIST is a fast, fun read.”
Phillip M. Margolin
The Death Artist is a fast, fun read.
Susan Isaacs
“THE DEATH ARTIST is stylish, scary and very, very smart. Jonathan Santlofer’s thriller really thrills.”
Judd Tully
“Spellbinding, sexy and savage.”

Meet the Author

Jonathan Santlofer is the author of five novels and a highly respected artist whose work has been written about and reviewed in the New York Times, Art in America, Artforum, and Arts, and which appears in many public, private, and corporate collections. He lives and works in New York City.

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Death Artist 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
A real page turner. Equally terrifying and hilarious. An insider's look at the art world that taught me a lot about art, but totally entertained me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great reading...chock full of surprises every time you turn the page.Gives you an insiders look at New Yorks artsy world from someone who knows it well.The characters drew me in and alternately scared me and made me laugh.This is a wonderful novel of suspense and cunning.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Alternately frightening and really funny, The Death Artist is a first-rate page turner, chock full of frights and red herrings right up to the very last page! Probably because the author is a painter the book is so visual you feel as though you are watching the scenes play in front of your eyes. It's also a great look into the glamourous world of art told by an obvious insider. But don't think the book is one bit snobby or off-putting. It's smart, but totally a hoot, and right up there with some of the best suspense novels I have ever read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I don't read mystery books, but someone gave this one to me because I am a painter. I LOVED it! Couldn't put it down. Well-written, smart, really funny and interesting in terms of the N.Y. art scene. This book will be a hit!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Man, was this book ever great! I not only learned about art and the cooler than cool art world, but I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. The story is alternately really scary and really a hoot! I usually read spy thrillers, but this book was a blast!
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of the best thrillers I have read in years. Equally terrifying and really funny. A woman hero I could identify with, though my husband loved the book too. Neither of us could put this book down!
Guest More than 1 year ago
An amazing, impossible to put down page turner. Sophisticated, witty, frightening and very very cool. I loved this book and recommend it to anyone who wants a big, fun, smart thriller to curl up with.
harstan More than 1 year ago
The first victim was found dead in his bathtub with an arm hanging over the side as if the individual posed for David when he painted his famous portrait Marat. The second corpse could have modeled for a Picasso masterpiece. The art world is horrified and obviously frightened while law enforcement wonders if a new serial killer, THE DEATH ARTIST, has surfaced.

Kate McKinnon Rothstein feels at home with the merging of homicide and art as a former NYPD detective turned art historian though investigating a serial killer is not what she expected to do after a decade away from the force. However, the culprit seems ironically appreciative of her PBS show that leads Kate to try to stop the deranged genius from further imitating art with deadly accuracy.

Just looking at the above two paragraphs, readers will think that THE DEATH ARTIST is a by the numbers serial killer, but that would be an inaccurate portrayal of the novel. Though a serial killer tale, the story line contains much deeper insight than usual especially into the mind of the murderer and into the political side of the fine arts. It is no stretch to believe that Kate can combine her two professional experiences in an attempt to track down the homicidal artist, but what turns Jonathan Santlofer¿s debut novel into a near masterpiece is the secondary flavoring of an insider look at the modern world of art.

Harriet Klausner