The Immaculate Deception (Art History Mystery Series #7)

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Overview

From internationally bestselling author Iain Pears comes the seventh in his Jonathan Argyll series -- an intriguing mystery of love, loss, and artistic license.
For newlywed and Italian art theft squad head Flavia di Stefano, the honeymoon is over when a painting, borrowed from the Louvre and en route to a celebratory exhibition, is stolen. Desperate to avoid public embarrassment -- and to avoid paying a ransom -- the Italian prime minister ...
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The Immaculate Deception (Art History Mystery Series #7)

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Overview

From internationally bestselling author Iain Pears comes the seventh in his Jonathan Argyll series -- an intriguing mystery of love, loss, and artistic license.
For newlywed and Italian art theft squad head Flavia di Stefano, the honeymoon is over when a painting, borrowed from the Louvre and en route to a celebratory exhibition, is stolen. Desperate to avoid public embarrassment -- and to avoid paying a ransom -- the Italian prime minister leans hard on Flavia to get it back quickly and quietly.
Across town, her husband, art historian Jonathan Argyll, begins an investigation of his own, tracing the past of a small Renaissance painting -- an Immaculate Conception -- owned by Flavia's mentor, retired general Taddeo Bottando. Soon both husband and wife uncover astonishing and chilling secrets, and Flavia's investigation takes a sudden turn from the search for an art thief to the hunt for a murderer.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Our Review
When in Rome
A stolen masterpiece with arcane allegorical significance; a decades-old political kidnapping and murder; and, of course, a tantalizing artwork of unknown provenance -- in his seventh Jonathan Argyll art mystery, The Immaculate Deception, English art historian Iain Pears returns with a virtuosic display of ingenious plotting and literary trompe l'oeil.

Pears's clever and effortlessly erudite art mysteries have found a select readership on both sides of the Atlantic. But the phenomenal success of Pears's 1998 literary thriller, An Instance of the Fingerpost -- a multifaceted Restoration whodunit on a par with Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose -- has dramatically increased stateside interest in the author's earlier work. The Immaculate Deception once again centers on the exploits of the affable and perpetually distracted English art dealer Jonathan Argyll; the beautiful and formidable Flavia di Stefano of the Italian Art Theft Squad; and her erstwhile boss, General Taddeo Bottando, along with several of the series' usual -- or, more appropriately -- unusual supporting cast of suspects.

When a masterpiece on loan for the opening of an international exhibition is stolen in a manner calculated to embarrass the Italian government, Flavia di Stefano is ordered by the newly installed prime minister to recover the painting at all costs. Her deceptively simple mandate quickly reveals itself to be a politically fraught, no-win situation. If is she meets the thief's ransom demands, she'll almost certainly be disgraced -- and perhaps go to jail; if she refuses the order, she'll be summarily removed from her post. With Jonathan jaunting through the Tuscan countryside on the trail of an interesting art collection, Flavia turns to her old friend and confidant General Bottando for advice. As a seasoned survivor of the Roman political arena himself, he suggests that she follow the time-honored convention and do as other Romans: "When faced with deviousness, you must be devious yourself."

Working together, Flavia and Bottando devise a plan to recover the painting. But no sooner has the ransom been paid than the art-napper -- a former '60s radical turned bourgeois performance artist -- is found dead under highly suspicious circumstances. Worse, Bottando himself has disappeared without a trace, leaving Flavia to face her first major crisis as head of the Art Squad alone. Risking official censure and hounded by a sinister journalist, Flavia explores the tenuous connection between a decades-old act of terrorism and recent events, only to discover a secret conspiracy that could topple the government -- or cost her her life. Like Michael Dibdin's award-winning Aurelio Zen novels, Pears's Jonathan Argyll mysteries go beyond genre fundamentals to immerse readers in every aspect of contemporary Italian culture -- from its legendary art and cuisine to the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the political and criminal justice systems to candid, unexpectedly breathtaking portrayals of everyday life. The Immaculate Deception is a splendid addition to a mystery series of the first order, and an exuberant confirmation of Iain Pears as a modern master of the form.

--Greg Marrs

From the Publisher
"Magnificent"
-- Chicago Sun-Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Jonathan Argyll, accompanied by his new wife, Flavia di Stefano, makes his seventh appearance in this confusing case of a stolen painting, murder and intrigue, following 1998's well-received An Instance of the Fingerpost. Antonio Sabauda, the Italian prime minister, asks Flavia, now acting head of the national art squad, to recover Claude Lorraine's Landscape with Cephalis and Procris, stolen from an Italian museum while on loan from the Louvre. Flavia, however, must not use public money for the requested ransom. As Flavia's former boss, Gen. Taddeo Bottando, has told her, "Prime ministers? Oh, they can ruin your life." She finds this is true on many levels. Meanwhile, Argyll, the art expert, is snooping into the provenance of a small painting owned by Bottando. Soon Argyll and Flavia find that almost everyone they talk to in their respective investigations has a hidden agenda. Who is behind all the shady goings-on in the art world? Is it Prime Minister Sabauda, General Bottando or another person with something to protect? Ultimately, as people's motives become clearer and one corpse after another turns up, Argyll and Flavia find that they have to make some very disturbing choices involving their own sense of morality. A personal secret that Flavia harbors until the end adds some intrigue. While the author nicely portrays the Italian art world, readers looking for a scintillating mystery will have to seek elsewhere. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Following the success of his historical thriller, An Instance of the Fingerpost, Pears returns to his Jonathan Argyll mysteries and continues to explore the intricacies and intrigue of the Italian art world. Flavia de Stefano, the acting head of the Art Theft Department of the Italian Police Force, is faced with an impossible problem: retrieving a stolen artwork on loan to the Italian government without giving in to ransom demands (which, apparently, are illegal to honor in Italy). Aided by her art expert husband, Jonathan Argyll, she embarks on a trail that's chockfull of 20-year-old secrets and encounters bad guys (and girls) in abundance. Pears offers a glimpse of the painstaking process of authenticating ancient works of art, which, to this reader, was more compelling than the story itself. While this is an interesting look at the world of art collectors, the plot is a tad too complex and difficult to follow. Recommended for larger mystery collections.-- Caroline Mann, Univ. of Portland Lib., OR Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
New Yorker
A nimble mystery...Like those classic Nick and Nora whodunits, this book is really a comedy in disguise: the plot twists are finely turned, our heroes flirt harmlessly with danger, and in the end everyone gets what he may not have known he wanted all along.
Kirkus Reviews
Under Italian law, you can be jailed for two years for paying a ransom for a loved one who's kidnapped. And Prime Minister Antonio Sabauda's not about to do time for the return of a mere painting, even if that painting is an oftstolen Claude Lorraine borrowed from the Louvre whose safety Sabauda's government has personally guaranteed. So Flavia di Stefano, acting head of Rome's arttheft squad, can't look for Landscape with Cephalis and Procris herself (that would alert the media it's missing) or satisfy the ransom demand with government funds (that would break the law). But, Sabauda delicately hints, if a private donor should make the funds available . . . hours before an anonymous package arrives for Flavia containing the ransom to the last Euro. The teasing puzzle is further complicated when Flavia realizes that the painting's thief, terrorist/performance artist Maurizio Sabbatini, drowned in a tub of plaster not only before picking up the ransom money, but even before making the ransom demand. Meantime, her bridegroom Jonathan Argyll's scholarly interest in an Immaculate Conception painting stolen 40 years ago reveals surprising, sometimes incredible, new roles for Jonathan's old adversary, aging art thief Mary Verney, and Flavia's retiring mentor, General Taddeo Bottando, and inevitably links the two thefts together with every other Italian malfeasance since the Borgias.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743272414
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 4/5/2005
  • Series: Art History Mystery Series, #7
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 451,937
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Iain Pears
Iain Pears is the author of the New York Times bestseller An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Portrait. He lives in Oxford, England.

Biography

Before 1990, the only book Oxford art historian Iain Pears had published was a history of the arts in 17th- and 18th-century England. But as a Reuters news correspondent in England, France, Italy, and the United States, he had produced articles on everything from soccer matches to stock market reports.

When Pears decided to combine his writing skills with his background in art history, the result was The Raphael Affair, the first book in a series of neatly crafted, highly original "art history mysteries." Packed with fascinating details about art history and juicy tidbits about the art-buying world, the series revolves around British art historian Jonathan Argyll, with Flavia di Stefano of the Italian National Art Theft Squad as his partner in crime-fighting (and eventually in marriage).

The books were a hit with readers and critics of mysteries—Kirkus Reviews called The Bernini Bust (1993) "the cleverest entry yet in this deliciously literate series." Still, Pears remained relatively unknown in the wider literary world until the 1998 publication of An Instance of the Fingerpost. This weighty philosophical mystery novel was compared to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose in its scope and ambition, and like The Name of the Rose, it was an international bestseller.

In it, Pears "brilliantly exploits the stormy, conspiracy-heavy history of England after the death of Oliver Cromwell to fashion a believable portrait of 17th-century political and intellectual life as well as a whodunit of almost mesmerizing complexity," wrote Richard Bernstein in The New York Times Book Review. Pears's "baroque and ingenious" book (as Andrew Miller called it) relates the murder of an Oxford don from the point of view of four different narrators, only one of them reliable. Along the way, it explores epistemological questions about observation and insight, superstition and science, reason and faith. The 685-page volume sold more than 120,000 copies in hardcover—an impressive figure considering the book's density and subject matter.

The popularity of An Instance of the Fingerpost helped boost sales of Pears' mysteries, and fans of Jonathan Argyll were gratified when Pears brought out another installment in the series, The Immaculate Deception (2000). But readers would have to wait a bit longer for another Pears novel. The Dream of Scipio (2002) was worth the wait. The book weaves together three stories, set in Provence in three different historical crisis points: the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th century; the Black Death in the 14th century; and World War II in the mid-20th century. The stories are linked by a manuscript titled The Dream of Scipio (after Cicero's dialogue of the same name), and by thematic concerns with passion, wisdom and power.

Allan Massie, reviewing The Dream of Scipio for The Scotsman, called it "erudite, even demandingly intellectual…If the highest test of a work of imaginative literature is whether it can make you think and feel at the same time, this novel passes it."

Good To Know

Pears mentioned in an interview that he gave a Harry Potter book to a godchild before Harry Potter became widely known. When his favorite books achieve fame, he added, it's "delightful for the authors, and well-deserved…but I always feel ever so slightly betrayed when one of my private joys becomes public property like that."

In another interview, Pears said he had too many favorite painters to list, but included David Hockney, Nicolas Poussin, and James Whistler as "current favorites."

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    1. Hometown:
      Oxford, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      1955
    1. Education:
      Ph.D., Oxford University

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

One morning, a fine May morning in Rome, when the sun was beaming through the clouds of carbon monoxide and dust and giving a soft, fresh feel to the day, Flavia di Stefano sat immobile in a vast traffic jam that began in the Piazza del Popolo and ended somewhere near the Piazza Venezia. Many people, at least those with a different personality from her own, would have been unperturbed by this common occurrence, and would instead have contemplated their surroundings with something approaching patient smugness. Not many, after all, can call on a Mercedes, complete with chauffeur and obligatory tinted windows, to ferry them around town at the taxpayers' expense. Fewer still at such a young age are the head (if only the acting head) of one of the more reputable departments in the Italian police force, complete with its own budget, personnel, and expense accounts.

And virtually none of the small number of departmental potentates use their splendid forms of transport to go to unspecified meetings, called late the previous evening, at the Palazzo Chigi, the official residence of the Italian prime minister.

That, of course, was the problem, and the reason behind Flavia's insensitivity to the early morning sunshine, and her disdain for all living things. For a start, her collar itched monstrously, and was a permanent, nagging reminder of her own inexperience and desire to create the right impression. Instead of sitting quietly that morning eating toast and drinking coffee, she had run around showering, choosing clothes, and worst of all, applying copious amounts of makeup. Then having a fit of defiance and taking it all off again, then weakening with nerves and putting it all back on. Worse still, she stood peering out of the window into the little piazza below, anxiously waiting for the car to arrive, checking and rechecking the contents of her handbag. She had nightmare visions of grabbing her coat and running through the streets of Rome to get there. Breaking a heel on a cobblestone. Arriving out of breath, her hair in a mess. Creating entirely the wrong impression. Career destroyed, over in a moment, just because some damn fool driver didn't turn up. And what was more, she felt ill; stomach in a turmoil, the rest of her queasy. Bug. Flu, probably. Nervousness. Something like that. It was going to be one of those days. She knew it.

"Flavia. Do stop jiggling about like that. You're making me nervous." Jonathan Argyll, her husband of four weeks' standing, and boyfriend-cum-flatmate of near ten years, sat at the kitchen table trying to read the newspaper. "It's only the prime minister, you know."

Flavia turned around to scowl at him.

"I'm not being facetious," he went on calmly as he reached for the marmalade before she could tell him what she thought of his sense of whimsy. "You know as well as I do that bad news is always handed out by underlings. Besides, you haven't done anything wrong recently, have you? Not misplaced a Raphael, dropped a Michelangelo, shot a senator, or anything?"

Another scowl.

"There you are, then. Nothing to worry about," he continued, getting up to give her a quick pat to indicate that he sympathized. "Even less now that your car has arrived."

He pointed downward, waved cheerfully at the driver, whom he vaguely recognized, and even more cheerfully at Flavia, as she rushed for her bag and coat.

"Calm. Remember?" he said as she opened the door.

"I remember."

Calm, she repeated to herself thirty minutes later as she looked at her watch one more time. Stuck in a traffic jam, half a mile to go, five minutes late. At least it cut the unaccustomed car sickness. Calm, she thought.

It was Bottando's fault, really, she reflected. Her erstwhile boss, now gone on to greater things, was one of those who liked formulating universal laws about life, which he delivered as aphorisms that came back to haunt you at inappropriate moments.

"Politicians," he said once over a glass of brandy following a long lunch. "Politicians can ruin your day. Ministers, on the other hand, can ruin your week."

"And prime ministers?" Flavia had asked.

"Prime ministers? Oh, they can ruin your life."

His little bon mot, for some reason, didn't seem quite so urbane at the moment. She considered leaning forward to see if the driver could go any faster, but abandoned the idea. Another one of Bottando's rules. Never let anyone see you are nervous -- especially not drivers, who are notoriously the biggest gossips on the planet. So, like a condemned man who finally realizes his fate is inevitable, she gave a big sigh, leaned back, and gave up fretting. Immediately, the lights changed, the cars began moving, and the palazzo came into sight. She was waved through the vast wooden gates into the courtyard with virtually no delay, and within minutes was being ushered into an anteroom to an anteroom to the office where Antonio Sabauda, prime minister now for a whole nine months, held his audiences. Fourteen minutes late.

Her guardian angel was on duty, working hard on her behalf. Sabauda was later still, and over the next forty minutes she allowed herself to work up a fine head of steam about the lack of consideration shown by unpunctual people. In fact, by the time the door was finally opened and she was shown in, the nervousness was gone, the deference dissipated, the stomach quiescent, and her character quite restored to its normal state.

So she marched into the surprisingly dingy office thinking only how stupid she had been to put on quite so much lipstick and wishing she hadn't bothered, shook hands with the prime minister in a uninterested fashion, and sat down on a chair before she was asked. What did she care? She hadn't voted for him.

He scored early points by referring neither to her age, nor to the fact that she was a woman, and pushed his rating even higher by not indulging in any small talk. Then he spoiled it all by expressing surprise that Bottando himself had not come. Flavia reminded him that she, not General Bottando, was now running the art theft squad on a day-to-day basis.

"But he is still the head of it, is he not?"

"Nominally. But he takes no active role in our operations anymore. He is running this European venture, and that uses up all his time."

"And more of his patience," the prime minister added for her with a faint smile. "I see. And I am sure we are in safe hands with you, signora. I do hope so anyway. I'm afraid there is something of a crisis on hand. I would tell you about it myself, but I know few of the details. Dottore Macchioli knows those, and he has just arrived. This, I'm afraid, is why you have been kept waiting for so long."

Of course, Flavia thought. All is now clear. Alessandro Macchioli was one of those endearingly lovable characters who sows disaster everywhere he goes. Never on time for anything, however much he tried, always colliding with all manner of inanimate objects that leapt out at him as he passed, he was the very model of the unworldly scholar. And as a scholar he was very fine indeed, so Jonathan told her, as he knew more about this sort of thing than she did. But as the director of the National Museum, he was, in Bottando's opinion, one of the wonders of the world. His elevation had come on the rebound; his predecessor had been go-getting, dynamic, determined to drag the musty museum into modernity, and was shortly to be let out of jail. The embarrassment had been considerable, and Macchioli -- who could not only resist temptation but probably wouldn't even notice he was being tempted -- had seemed the obvious successor, in the circumstances. A safe pair of hands; back to the traditional values of connoisseurship, erudition, and old-time curating. A universally beloved figure, in fact, but quite incapable of defending his patch against the incursions of bureaucrats who wished to cut his funds, to ooze up to potential benefactors, or to manage his disorganized museum.

And deeply unhappy, Flavia judged from the nervous way he came in, thrusting his bicycle clips into the bulging pocket of his shabby suit. It was all most intriguing.

Macchioli sat down, fiddled with his hands, and looked uncomfortable as the introductions were made.

"Perhaps we might begin?" the prime minister prompted.

"Ah, yes," Macchioli said absently.

"You have a problem that you wish to tell the signora about?"

Persuading himself to divulge it was evidently a titanic struggle, almost as though he knew that, once he had spoken, all sorts of unpleasant consequences might begin to swirl around him. He rocked to and fro, hunched his shoulders, rubbed his nose, and then, in a sudden burst of decision, spoke: "I've lost a picture. The museum has. It was stolen."

Flavia was puzzled. She could see why he was upset. Awkward business, losing pictures. That was not the problem, however. They went missing all the time; so often, in fact, that the routine for what to do was well established. You phoned the police. They went around, did their stuff and then you forgot all about it, on the reasonable grounds that the picture was unlikely ever to be seen again. All perfectly normal. It was hearing about it in the prime minister's office that was not entirely orthodox.

"I see," she said helpfully, but poor old Macchioli did not take it as a prompt to continue; instead he lapsed into another agonized silence.

"For the last five years, you see, we have been planning an exhibition." He restarted, evidently deciding that a sidelong approach might be best. "To celebrate Italy's presidency of the European Community, which begins in fifteen days' time. Drawing on all aspects of European art, but I am afraid that some people" -- and here he gave a surreptitious glance in the direction of the desk at which the prime minister was sitting -- "some people have sought to turn it into a nationalistic demonstration."

"Just a small reminder of our contribution in matters of culture," the prime minister purred.

"This has made borrowing the works a little more difficult than it might have been," Macchioli continued. "Not that it is relevant to the disaster that has befallen us..."

The prime minister, showing more patience than his reputation would have suggested possible, sighed in the background. It was enough to bring Macchioli's errant mind back to the immediate issue.

"We did, however, finally arrange to borrow nearly all the paintings we wanted. Most from Italian institutions, naturally, but a good proportion from foreign museums and owners. Many of the pictures have never been seen in this country before."

"But I know about all this," said Flavia with more impatience than the prime minister was showing. "We've been involved in the planning for years. Members of my department escorted the first few paintings from the airport to the museum last week."

"Yes. And a very fine job you did, too. No mistake about that. Very fine. Unfortunately..."

"The one you've had stolen. It was one of those?"

He nodded.

"When?"

"Yesterday. At lunchtime."

"Lunchtime? Then why are you only telling me about it now?"

"It was very awkward, you see. I wasn't at all sure what to do about it..."

"Perhaps I might fill the signora in?" The prime minister interrupted, glancing at his watch and realizing that, unless something was done soon, this meeting might last for the rest of the day and Macchioli still wouldn't have explained anything. "Please correct me if I get the details wrong. I understand the picture was stolen at around half past one yesterday. A hooded man reversed a truck into the storage area, held up the people working there, forced them to load the painting, complete with its frame, into the back of the truck, and drove off. Is that correct?"

Macchioli nodded.

Flavia, fidgeting around in her seat, opened her mouth to make the obvious protests about wasted time, trails going cold, and so on.

"Your department, signora, was not called because the thief left behind a message saying that the police should not be contacted."

"A ransom demand, is that it?"

A shrug. "Not exactly. Just that we'd be hearing more in due course. I suppose that means money."

"Maybe so. What, exactly, is the picture?"

"It's a Claude Lorrain. Landscape with Cephalus and Procris," Macchioli said reluctantly.

Flavia paused. "Oh, not that one, surely? Not the one where the government intervened officially to guarantee it?"

He nodded. You could see why he was upset, she thought. Not that it was such a great picture, although she always found Claude quite toothsome. Not a Raphael, or anything like that. But it had such a dodgy past. Its reputation as one of the most stolen pictures in the world ensured it a status beyond its simple quality. Argyll, no doubt, would remember the details better than she could, but she could recall the highlights. Painted in the 1630s for an Italian cardinal. Pinched by the duke of Modena when he found it in a wagon after a battle. Pinched again by a French general a few years later. Looted and sold during the French Revolution, pinched again by Napoleon when he came across it in Holland. Stolen by thieves in the 1930s, by the Germans in the 1940s, and by two more thieves in the 1950s and 1960s. Whereupon the exasperated owner sold it to the Louvre, in the hope that they would manage to hang on to it. Which they had. Until, it seemed, it had arrived in Italy.

"Oh, dear," she said.

"You see our problem," the prime minister continued. "It is exceptionally unpleasant for me, as I gave a personal guarantee about its safety. Quite apart from that, this exhibition is to be one of the cultural high points of our presidency. It would be very bad indeed if it was wrecked, and it would be wrecked if this news gets out. It is quite possible that other lenders would pull out, and even if they didn't our reputation would be damaged badly. You can imagine what would be said. We would look quite ridiculous."

Flavia nodded. "So? When you get the ransom demand you pay up."

"The only problem is that it is illegal. If we arrest people for paying ransoms to rescue their wives and children, we can hardly pay up for a mere painting."

A silence fell on the room, and it seemed as though Flavia was expected to say something useful.

"You mean you want me to find the painting?"

"I would ordinarily be deeply grateful, but in this case, no. How many people would you use for such an inquiry?"

Flavia thought for a moment. "Everyone we had, if you wanted a quick result. Not that I can guarantee one."

"And could you at least guarantee to keep it out of the press?"

"For about six hours, yes."

"Precisely. Secrecy in this matter is absolutely vital. Even if you were successful and recovered the painting swiftly, the damage would still be done."

"In which case, I confess to being defeated. You won't pay a ransom and won't look for the painting. What, exactly, do you want done?"

"We cannot pay a ransom. The government cannot authorize such a thing. Taxpayers' money cannot be used. Nor can any government employee be involved in its payment. Do I make myself clear?"

He did. But Flavia had not spent years watching Bottando take avoiding action without learning a thing or two.

"I'm afraid I'm not with you at all. Sorry," she said blandly.

"You will use your best abilities to recover this painting without any publicity. But I must make it absolutely clear that I cannot and will not condone the payment of a ransom from public funds."

"Ah."

"Should these criminals be paid off independently from a private source, a man willing to break the law for what he considers erroneously the public good, then that, of course, I cannot prevent, much though I might regret it."

"I see."

"You will keep me informed every day about your investigation, and will receive instructions as you proceed. Might I also say that the need for secrecy is absolute."

"You are rather tying my hands here."

"I'm sure you will manage."

"And if I come across any other way of recovering this picture?"

"You will restrain yourself. I want no risk of all of this coming into the open." He stood up. "I think that is all for the time being. Let me know of your progress every day, if you please."

Two minutes later, both Flavia and Macchioli were in an anteroom once more, she a little perplexed about the whole business, the museum director seemingly lost in despondency.

"Right, then," she said after a while. "I think you need to tell me a little more about what on earth has been going on here."

"Hmm?"

"Robbery? Armed man? Remember?"

"Yes, yes. What do you want to know?"

"How about how to contact this person? If I am to hand over money to them in some way, I ought to know how to set about it."

Macchioli looked blank. "What do you mean, hand over money? I thought you had just been told that you were to do no such thing?"

She sighed. The trouble with Macchioli was that there was no disingenuousness about him at all. He really did think that they had just sat through a meeting and been given instructions that no money was to be paid. That, of course, might well turn into a major problem.

"Doesn't matter. Forget it," she said. "This message, it gave no means of contact?"

"No."

"Can I see it, please?"

"It's in my office."

It was like talking to a particularly stupid child. "Why don't we go to your office, then?"

"There," he said, forty minutes later, after a silent voyage through the streets of Rome. "It's not very informative."

Flavia took the piece of paper -- no point in worrying about fingerprints or anything like that now -- and looked. True enough. She could hardly fault the analysis. Six words only. She even admired the economy of expression.

She leaned back in her seat and thought. Did it tell her anything? "You'll be hearing from me." Done on a computer printer, but who didn't have access to one these days? The paper was standard-issue computer paper, of which there were several billion sheets consumed every day. No, it told her nothing; or, at least, nothing that the author didn't want her to know.

"The robbery itself," she said, turning her attention back to Macchioli.

He shook his head. "Very little to say you haven't already been told. A small truck; the sort that traders use to deliver fruit and vegetables. A man dressed up as Leonardo da Vinci..."

"What?" she asked incredulously. He had said it as though people dressed as Renaissance painters or baroque popes were to be seen pottering about the museum every day.

"One of those masks you buy in party shops. You know. And a sort of cape. And the gun, of course. Do you want to see that?"

She looked at him wearily. Mere expressions of incredulity seemed inadequate somehow. "The gun?"

"He dropped it when he drove off. Threw it, actually. At the men who helped him load the picture. This was after he handed out chocolates."

"Chocolates?" she said weakly.

"Little boxes of chocolates. Belgian ones, I believe. You know, the ones that you buy in specialty shops. With a ribbon on the top."

"Of course. Where are they?"

"What?"

"The chocolates."

"The guards ate them."

"I see. Blood sugar levels low because of the shock, no doubt. Apart from that, no violence of any sort?"

"No."

"I'd like to talk to these people in the storeroom."

"You'll have to."

"What do you mean?"

"Someone has to tell them to keep quiet about this."

"You haven't done that?"

"Of course. But nobody ever listens to me."

Flavia sighed. "Very well, then. Take me to them. Then you can show me the gun."

She decided on the brutal approach. Not simply because it was one of those days, and she wasn't feeling in the mood for subtleties, but because she knew that being young and a woman meant that it was sometimes difficult to persuade people -- especially the sort of people who unload paintings -- to take her seriously.

"Right," she said, when the two men had come in and sat down. "I will say this once and once only. I am the head of the art theft squad, investigating the theft of this picture. You two are prime suspects. Got that?"

They didn't answer but, judging by the way they turned a little pale, she assumed they had.

"I want it back fast, and more important people than myself want there to be no publicity. If there is any, if anyone hears about what has happened here, and I trace it back to you two, I will personally ensure (a) that you go to jail for aiding and abetting a crime, (b) that you stay in jail for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, (c) I will have you fired from this job, and (d) I will ensure that neither of you ever gets a job again. Is that understood?"

More pallor.

"In order to avoid this regrettable fate, all you have to do is keep your mouths shut. There was no theft, you know of no theft, nothing untoward happened yesterday. You may find that difficult, but you will find the self-discipline rewarding. Do I make myself absolutely clear?"

She was rather proud of the speech, delivered with all the cold conviction of a true apparatchik, able to call on untold occult powers to visit terrible consequences on the innocent. Anyone would have seen it was all nonsense after a moment's thought, and that there was nothing she could do to them at all, but the two men seemed too dull to notice. She only hoped they were not so dull that they failed to grasp what she wanted of them.

That would become clear in the next few days; what was immediately apparent, alas, was that they were certainly too dim-witted to be much use as witnesses. Their description of the robbery was scarcely more detailed than the brief summary that Macchioli and Sabauda had already given her. The only facts they added was that the van was large enough to get a Claude in, was white, and wasn't a Fiat. The man involved was of average height and might (or might not) have had a Roman accent. She dismissed them after twenty minutes with another dire warning, then was taken to see the gun.

Macchioli was keeping it in his safe. In a plastic bag. He was inordinately proud of himself about the plastic bag.

"There," he said, putting it gingerly on his desk. "We were lucky it didn't go off when it hit the ground."

Flavia felt like weeping. Some days were just so abominable she didn't know how she stood it. She took out her handkerchief, picked up the gun, looked at it for a few moments, then pointed it at her head.

"Signora! Be careful!" shouted Macchioli in alarm.

She looked at him sadly, closed her eyes, and to the older man's horror, slowly pulled the trigger.

The sound of what was later identified by analysts -- or rather by a secretary in payroll, who was an opera enthusiast -- as a jaunty version of Verdi's "Teco io sto. Gran Dio!" from Act Two of Un Ballo in Maschera, rendered on a little widget buried deep inside the gun's handle, drifted slowly across the room.

Flavia opened her eyes, shrugged, and tossed the gun onto the desk.

"If we manage to find a shop that has recently sold a Leonardo da Vinci mask and a plastic singing gun to a man carrying chocolates, we might have a lead," she said, as she put the gun back into the bag. "I'll let you know."

Five minutes later she was slumped in the back of the car, muttering darkly to herself. Then she reached a decision. Whatever injunctions other people needed to obey on keeping their mouths shut, she needed to ventilate. She gave her driver directions to head for the EUR.

Copyright © 2000 by Iain Pears

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Table of Contents

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First Chapter

Despite the morning, Flavia thought little on the journey or, at least, thought little about Claude and its inconvenient disappearance. Rather, she thought about her old boss, General Taddeo Bottando, poor soul, consigned to opulent exile in this grim suburb, surrounded by office blocks and 1930s architecture and wastelands where nothing much seemed to happen. He had been stuck out here for a year now, heading some grandiosely named European directive, as cut off from the mainstream of policing as his location suggested. Only bankers should have to work in this awful place; scarcely even a decent restaurant to go to at lunchtime, and Bottando was a man who liked his lunch.

Whereas the art squad building was run down but beautiful, underfunded but buzzing with activity, Bottando's new suburban empire was grand, dripping in cash but ugly and deathly quiet. Merely getting into the building required going through the sort of security procedures that usually defend classified government installations. Everybody was terribly well-dressed, the carpets were thick, the doors swished to and fro electrically, the computers hummed. A policeman's paradise, enough resources to tackle the world. Poor, poor man, she thought.

But Bottando put a brave face on it, and Flavia smiled encouragingly, both of them going through the ritual of pretending that all was well as they did on every occasion they met. He talked about the splendid things his new operation would shortly accomplish, she made joking remarks about European expense accounts. Neither ever referred to the fact that Bottando was showing his age just a bit more, that his conversation was just that touch duller, that his jokes andgood humor were now ever so slightly forced.

Nor was his heart in it any longer; he was away more often than he was behind his desk, constantly, it seemed, taking holidays. Winding down. Preparing his exit. It was only a matter of time before the holiday became permanent. A couple of years and he would have to retire anyway, although while in his old post at the art theft squad he had fended off even the thought; there was nothing to retire to. He was one of those people whose very existence was inconceivable without his job and his position.

His promotion had lost him both, and maybe that was the intention. To ease him out by easing him up, and perhaps Bottando was ready to go; he would have fought the move more had he not been halfway there already. He had won bigger battles against greater odds in the past. Maybe he'd had enough.

Fairly often now, Flavia came to see him not because she wanted his advice but because she wanted him to give it. She had been running the art theft squad for a year and had settled in. Better still, she found she was good at it and no longer needed to be anybody's protégée. She had leaned on Bottando heavily in the earlier days, but needed to do so no longer. He had, she was sure, noticed this and was pleased for her. The last time he came to the department, a few months back to check some old files and gather some materials, she knew he was just checking to make sure all was well. She was also sure that the visit was for no real reason, and that he stayed most of the afternoon — wandering about, reading this and that, chatting to people in corridors, going out for a drink afterward — largely because he had so little of substance to do in his own offices. She only hoped that he didn't suspect that sometimes — just sometimes — she felt a little sorry for him.

This time, however, there was no artifice in her visit. She was entering dark and stormy waters, and needed a bit of navigational guidance. She half-knew already what the advice would be; she nonetheless still needed to hear it.

Bottando came out of his office to greet her, gave her an affectionate kiss, and fussed about making her comfortable.

"My dear Flavia, how pleasant to see you. Not often we have you out in the provinces like this. What can I do for you? I assume, that is, that you haven't come just to feast your eyes on a properly funded department?"

She smiled. "I always like to see how things should be done, of course. But, in fact, I am here for some more of your best vintage advice. Premier cru, if you please."

"Always willing to put age at the service of enthusiasm," he replied. "As you know. I hope it is a real problem this time, not just something constructed to make me feel less obsolete."

He had noticed. Damn. Flavia felt genuinely, truly remorseful.

"You once told me prime ministers can ruin your life," she said.

"So they can. Especially if you get in their way. What have you got to do with prime ministers?"

With a brief preface about injunctions placed on her for silence, she told him.

Bottando listened intently, scratched his chin, stared at the ceiling, and grunted as the tale progressed, just as he always had when they had talked over a problem in the old days. And as the story continued, Flavia saw the slightest gleam come into his eyes, like an old and battered flashlight given a new battery.

"Aaah," he said with satisfaction as she finished, leaning back in his chair and gorged on the tale. "I can quite see why you want a second opinion. Most interesting."

"Exactly. The first question that strikes me, of course, is why such interest from on high? I mean, urgent meetings with the prime minister because of a picture?"

"I suppose you have to take the explanation about the government's sensitivity toward the European presidency at face value," Bottando said thoughtfully. "If I remember, the prime minister wants to make law and order his top priority. Antonio Sabauda will have a hard time pontificating about security if everybody is sniggering at him behind their memoranda all the while. No politician likes to look silly. They're very touchy on the subject; that's why they confuse their egos with the national interest so often."

"Maybe. Nevertheless, it strikes me that should anything go wrong, and there is a good chance that it will, then I am in a somewhat exposed position."

"Nothing on paper, I take it?"

Flavia shook her head. Bottando nodded appreciatively.

"I thought not. And the only other person to hear what was said was old Macchioli. Who is as malleable as a piece of lead sheeting." More thought. "Let's say it goes wrong. Everything appears in the newspaper, big scandal. Indignant prime minister says that he gave you instructions personally to drop everything and recover the painting, yet you did nothing about it. Hmm?"

Flavia nodded.

"Even worse, news takes some time to get out. Same indignant prime minister expressing shock that a policewoman should go around raising cash from unnamed sources to pay a ransom."

Another nod. "I could go to prison for that."

"So you could, my dear. Two years, not counting anything that might be tagged on for corruption and conspiracy."

"And if everything goes well..."

"If everything goes well, and you get the picture back, you will have performed a sterling service, which no one will know about. But you will know that the prime minister — a man who has many enemies and who has been in political life so long his skills as a survivor should never be underestimated — connived to get around the law so he could look good strutting the international stage. Knowledge, sometimes, can be a dangerous thing. Were you more ruthless, you could perhaps apply a little pressure on him, but he is more likely to see you as an ever-present threat and take the appropriate action. Something subtle, so that if you ever said anything, the response could be along the lines of 'poor embittered woman, trying to create a fuss because she was dismissed for incompetence.' Or corruption, or gross indecency, or something like that. Enough to make sure no one took you seriously. As I say, prime ministers can ruin your life."

Flavia felt her heart sinking as he spoke. Everything he said she had known, of course; having it spelled out in quite such a bald fashion did not raise her morale.

"Recommendations?"

Bottando grunted. "More difficult. What are your options, now? A strategic but untraceable leak to the press, followed by a public promise on your part to leave no stone unturned, etcetera? It would eliminate the prospect of going to jail at some future date, but pretty much ensure that prime ministerial wrath would descend on you with full force. End of a promising career. Do as you are told? Bad idea, for obvious reasons, especially as Macchioli would say on oath that you had been specifically instructed not to pay a penny."

"Doesn't leave much, does it?"

"Not at the moment, no. Tell me, this ransom money, where is it to come from?"

"I have no idea. Maybe an extremely wealthy patriot will suddenly wander through the door with a checkbook."

"Stranger things have happened. Let us assume that the money turns up. What then?"

"Get the picture back. Then go after whoever was responsible. They might do it again, after all."

Bottando shook his head. "Bad idea. What you must do is keep your head down. Do as you are told, and nothing else."

"But I'm not sure what I have been told to do. That's the trouble."

"I am merely trying to indicate that, when faced with deviousness, you must be devious yourself. You might also consider the wisdom of putting everything down on paper in front of a lawyer, so that, if necessary, your understanding of the meeting is clear."

Flavia sniffed, in exactly the same manner as Bottando used to do himself when she had proposed a distasteful idea and he had acted the part of cautious superior. The general noticed the sound, and all it implied, and smiled gently. For he also, in his way, felt slightly sorry for Flavia. Position and authority were not without their disadvantages, and having to be careful and responsible were among the biggest.

"I don't suppose you would like to help..."

"Me?" Bottando chuckled. "Dear me no. I most certainly would not. I am too old, my dear, to be running around with suitcases full of money under my arm. Besides, I must plead self-interest."

"What do you mean?"

"I am bored, Flavia," he said mournfully. "Bored out of my head. I have been sitting here pushing little bits of paper around for a year. I give orders to people who give orders to people who do some policing occasionally but spend most of their time constructing international directives. So I have decided that enough is enough. I am going to retire. My pension will be very much less than I had anticipated but quite sufficient. And I do not want to risk it at the moment. I will willingly give you any advice you want. And when I am finally retired any assistance you want as well. But at the moment, I must keep my head down as much as you."

"I'm really sorry you're going," she said, suddenly afflicted by an enormous sense of panic and loss.

"You'll survive without me, I dare say. And my mind is quite made up. Even the most fascinating job palls after a while, and as you may have noticed, what I'm doing at the moment is not especially fascinating. By the way, those chocolates. Did you say Belgian?"

"Yes."

"Ah."

"Why?"

"No reason. Merely a detail. Always thought them overrated, myself."

She stood up, looking at her watch. Late, late, late. Was it always to be like this now? Constant meetings, constant rush? Never time to sit and talk anymore? After several decades of it, she'd be ready to give it all up as well. She gave Bottando a brief embrace, told him to keep himself ready to give more advice, and headed back to her car. The driver was sound asleep on the backseat, waiting for her. Lucky man, she thought as she prodded him awake.

Copyright © 2000 by Iain Pears

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2012

    Great fun

    I like art theft mysteries. I learn how the sart world is so ripe for corruption and money laundering and all sorts of other deceptions and manipulations. In this story i found a clear strong voice with subtle tongue in cheek humor touced with sarcasm. no one takes themselves too seriously, and the plot is pleasantly convoluted. Story is short quick read..if his others books are at all similar i will work my way through..i expect no clinkers here..buy and enloy..beats bowling.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    A great who-done-it

    Prime Minister Antonio Sabauda guaranteed the safety of the Claude Lorraine masterpiece, on loan from the Louvre. Alas museum security and art thieves obviously misunderstood the PM as the painting is stolen. Desperate to recover the stolen painting, but without the media and consequently the public knowing, Sabauda assign acting chief of the Rome Police Department¿s art theft squad with recovering the lost art........................ The government cannot pay the ransom demands as that would break Italian law that is very clear that kidnappers are not to receive ransom money. Like magic an anonymous package containing the exact amount of Euros arrives. A bit surprised by the appearance of the cash, Flavia is further shocked to learn that the thief Maurizio Sabbatini drowned in a tub of plaster with the time of death occurring before he made the ransom demand. While Flavia struggles with her case wondering if the PM is pulling a stunt or perhaps her retired mentor General Taddeo Bottando, her spouse Jonathan Argyll looks into the stealing of the Immaculate Conception painting four decades ago. Neither realized the link between the thefts, but they better soon as more corpses follow the death of Sabbatini.................... IMMACULATE DECEPTION provides intriguing varying perspectives of the Italian art world especially from the husband-wife team, the PM, the museum that lost the painting, and the thief, etc. The who-done-it is somewhat convoluted and difficult to follow as the connections between the art thefts seem more like a nebulous version of the DNA helix. Still it is fun to follow Flavia and Jack struggle to solve art mysteries four decades apart and a murder too while their right and wrong morality is challenged as never before............. Harriet Klausner

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