The Immaculate Deception (Art History Mystery Series #7)

The Immaculate Deception (Art History Mystery Series #7)

4.3 8
by Iain Pears

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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

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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.

Editorial Reviews

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.

From the Publisher
-- Chicago Sun-Times

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Product Details

Gale Group
Publication date:
Art History Mystery Series, #7
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.74(h) x 1.11(d)

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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 and goodhumor 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.


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?"




"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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