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a novel of crime
Now he stood at the center of Waterloo Bridge, the river running broad and free beneath him. To his left, St Paul's and the City; to his right, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben. The sun pale in a blue-gray sky and the air bright with the bite and promise of spring.
That morning he had walked along the Embankment from London Bridge, Blackfriars to Waterloo Station, words and music to an old song by the Kinks accompanying him. Walked slowly, taking it all in. Open prison or not, prison was what it had been; what liberties they had allowed him, small and illusory.
Sloane breathed deeply,stretched both arms wide and, the beginnings of a smile bright in his eyes, set off for the north side of the Thames.
* * *
Crossing the river: Sloane had friends way back in his early thirties who, when he'd told them he was selling up, moving south, had looked at him askance. South. South of the river. Camberwell. Peckham. Shooters Hill. You can't be serious. But to Sloane, much of whose formative years had been spent criss-crossing the Atlantic, one home, one parent to another, Chicago to London to New York to London again, the journey across the Thames failed to assume any such significance. And yet, when he looked back, it was true that few of those so-called friends had found their way south to pay their respects to Sloane in Deptford, the only place he had been able to afford the accommodation he wanted: somewhere secure to live, light and large enough in which to paint. True, too, that when he himself made the journey in reverse, back to then familiar watering holes in Camden or Wood Green, all eyes would widen with amazement, as if some long-departed spirit had just walked through the door. Christ, Sloane, what you doin' here? Thought you'd gone for good.
And he had. Or so he thought. For a long time Deptford suited him perfectly. Anonymous. Poor. A shuttle of short streets and railway arches, scattered stalls selling everything from fruit and veg to knocked-off boots and jeans at stripped-down prices. When claustrophobia threatened he could stride up the hill to the broad heights of Blackheath and Greenwich Park, or cut north, following Deptford Creek to where the river curved round the Isle of Dogs.
But things changed as things must: it was in the late eighties, when Sloane returned from yet another prolonged visit to the States, that he noticed it most. The scrubbed wooden shutters that had appeared in the windows of turn-of-the-century terraced houses and the occasional four-by-four parked bulkily at the curb. Gentrification had arrived and tall skinny lattés would not be far behind. Worse still from Sloane's point of view, the growing prominence of the art school at Goldsmiths' College, west towards New Cross, was threatening to turn the whole area into a trendy enclave. Already there were two new art galleries on Deptford High Street, both exhibiting installations—perish they should show actual paintings—and more would follow. Soon, Sloane thought, take a walk to the butcher's for some lamb chops and you won't know if it's the real thing or just another piece of tired conceptual art.
It was time to change direction. Go north. North London, that is. The part of his world where he had spent perhaps his most formative years—from primary school into his early teens.
After months of searching, chasing down what seemed increasingly impossible to find, Sloane stumbled on the perfect location, half-hidden in the back streets of Kentish Town, and not so far from where he and his mother had lived all those years before. The same page of the A-Z.
The building was set across the end of a short, curving cul-de-sac, flat-fronted, flat-roofed, almost as broad as it was tall. Previously some kind of workshop, Sloane had thought, a small business; the brick exterior, painted white, now veiled in inner-city grime and smut. Large, squarish windows on both floors, the lower ones protected by iron bars; the heavy door padlocked fast. Both window frames and door were painted a dull blue.
To the right a cobbled alley led to the rear of an old factory, which was gradually being refitted to accommodate smaller enterprises; opposite, high fencing and overgrown shrubbery protected the grounds of a former school, the premises now rented out to minority groups and teachers of self-actualization and contemporary dance. Immediately behind and high above ground level the track of the old North London railway carried trains into West Kentish Town station every twenty minutes in the hour.
The upper floor of the building itself was no more than an open space with bare boards and roughcast walls; ample room for housing Sloane's accumulated canvases and sundry paraphernalia, room to work, his studio. It would be easy enough to tear out the partitions on the lower level, smooth and sand the floor; he would trawl nearby Junction Road for a reconditioned cooker and fridge to stand with the existing sink, a few bits of basic furniture, second-hand. A plumber could replace the cracked lavatory bowl in the extension out back and, with a little ingenuity, install a shower in the existing space.
A month after he signed the lease, two officers from Scotland Yard's Arts and Antiques Unit intercepted him as he left the Pizza Express at the corner of Prince of Wales Road. `Fiorentina?' one of them asked, a slight but perceptible Welsh lilt to his voice. `American Hot? Got to be favorite, that. Couple of bottles of Peroni. Garlic bread.' After dispensing the usual warnings, they placed him under arrest. LIKE SO MUCH ELSE, it had happened by chance. Falling in with Robert Parsons, that is.
Sick of getting by on the dole and what little he could earn from selling his own paintings, Sloane had talked himself into a job at one of the main London auction houses. Nothing too demanding: packing, lifting, loading. Regular money, regular hours. Once in a while he'd poke his nose into the bidding room while there was an auction going on. Two hundred and seventy, two hundred and eighty; yes, thank you, two ninety, two ninety-five, three hundred thousand. Going for the first time at three hundred thousand pounds. The last of his own work Sloane had sold, a large canvas measuring 150 by 260 centimeters, thick swathes of vermilion and magenta overlaid with coils of crystal blue, had been bought by a former rock star, who had paid fifteen hundred pounds for the privilege of having it on the wall in his Tex-Mex restaurant. That and all the enchiladas Sloane could eat. He tried not to feel bitter and mostly he succeeded.
He was in the packing room one day, wrapping a small Matisse in folds of tissue, when one of the auction house staff came in with a visitor. Camilla, with a degree in Art History from Oxford and a diploma from the Chartered Institute of Marketing; Robert Parsons, owner of a small, conservative gallery off Cork Street, scrupulous in gray suit, pale pink shirt with white collar, public school tie. A voice you could cut glass on.
`You will treat her carefully,' Parsons said, smiling amiably in Sloane's direction. `She's just cost me a small fortune.'
Sloane glanced down at the painting, a dancer resting among green flowers, and said nothing.
`You don't like it?' Parsons asked.
`I don't have to.' In fact, Sloane thought it lovely, delicious. The rich darkness of the green, the palpable strength of the dancer's legs, even in repose. It was Parsons he didn't like.
Sensing this, Camilla took Parsons's arm and led him off in her earnest, sexless manner, encouraging him to share whatever gossip had come his way.
* * *
Sloane didn't see Parsons again until one afternoon months later, when he was sitting in the furthermost corner of a pub in Notting Hill, enjoying a slow pint and fiddling with somebody's discarded Times crossword. A small group of people spilled into the bar from the restaurant upstairs, loud on their own brilliance and too much wine. Handshakes and kisses, laughter and farewells: when the rest of them had left, there was Parsons, slipping his mobile from the pocket of his overcoat and checking it for messages. Half turning, he spotted Sloane in his corner and, after only the slightest hesitation, walked over. `Robert Parsons,' he said, extending a hand. `The Matisse ...'
`You didn't like it.'
`On the contrary.'
`I see.' Parsons eased out a chair and sat down. `Then it was what? The money? Not quite as obscene as if someone had turned up another dreary Van Gogh. In which case you could have objected
Excerpted from IN A TRUE LIGHT by JOHN HARVEY. Copyright © 2001 by John Harvey. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted March 20, 2010
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John Harvey is best known for the Charlie Resnick novels. Here he adopts a new protagonist in Sloane. Sloane is a superb artist who has just finished serving a short term in prison for art forgery. The plot centers on his search for a daughter, Connie, he never knew he had. Sloane is soon immersed in protecting his unwilling daughter from a thug of a manager who thinks he owns Connie and who has a history of violence against women. The novel develops well and the dialog is solid and the plot believable. All around a solid book by a very good author. This is a keeper for the permanent libary.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.