Aaron Elkins has written sixteen books, but I just discovered him. My Lucky Day. While Elkins’ other fifteen books deal with forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver, Loot introduces a new leading man. Ben Revere is known as the Boston Art Cop because, as a former curator and an art historian, he has helped the police in solving art-related crimes. Ben is smart, has a wry sense of humor, is a timid-yet-willing action hero, is lonely after his divorce, and he has a strong sense of commitment to doing the right thing for the right reasons. I hope this is the beginning of a series of books about Ben, because this one only whetted my appetite.
Loot begins when Simeon, a friend of Ben’s, is murdered over a recently-discovered painting thought to have been stolen by the Nazi’s at the end of WWII. If you recall your world history, it was one of Hitler’s objectives to confiscate (by any means possible) all the great art of Europe, and he came very close to doing just that. The premise of this book is that one truckload of Old Masters, headed for storage in the Altaussee salt mine, went missing, and for fifty years, the whereabouts of the truck and its contents have remained a mystery. When Ben authenticates that Simeon is indeed in the possession of a lost Velázquez, and then Simeon is killed, Ben is drawn into a series of events – and murders – that leave him and the police perplexed and frustrated.
Adding to Ben’s problems is his attraction to Simeon’s niece, Alexendra Porter. She wants to get to the bottom of her uncle’s death and urges Ben to look into it. Ben feels somewhat responsible for Simeon’s death, because he realized the immense value of the painting but didn’t insist strongly enough that Simeon not keep the artwork in his small pawn shop.
Ben’s pursuit of the murderer takes him to several foreign locales. St. Petersburg in Russia and Vienna, Austria among them. Is the Russian mafia involved, wonders Ben? Why is it that, as soon as he meets with anyone claiming to know of the painting, they are killed within hours? Although he’s had several confrontations with the assassins, why has he been spared? Count Stetten, an Austrian who claims to be the original owner of the Velázquez, seems a kindly old gentleman, so why does something keep niggling in the back of Ben’s mind about how truthful the count has been with him? Could another man, Mr. Nussbaum, be the real owner? And what’s bothering Alex anyway? He thought she liked him, so why has she been so tense?
If you are interested in art history, you’ll find the insights and information in Loot fascinating. The Nazis and their efforts to corner the market on billions of dollars worth of art work (or destroy it completely), adds more dimension to the tale. While this is not a romance, there is a romance in it, and a very nice one it is. Ben’s a regular guy who’s lost at love once, and is tentative about sticking his toe in the waters again. But he finds in Alex just the kind of woman he needs.
There is a lot going on in this book. There are many characters (suspects?) who all have well-defined personalities, lots of humor from the self-deprecating hero, so much detail about art and the Nazis, European travel and basic human observation, you’ll wonder just where the facts leave off and the fiction begins. I pictured Ben as a combination of Indiana Jones and Rick Steves – ready with his fists when necessary, yet all the while giving you a bit of background on the hotel accommodations and good places to eat while in Europe.
Author Elkins has a dry sense of humor, which is evident throughout the book. His style is easy to read and his characters complex. I love mysteries, and I usually solve them with no trouble. Even though the clues are there, I missed this one by a yard. Things and people are not what they seem, and Elkins moved me right where he wanted me to go.
If you, too, like mysteries, if you’ve ever been to Europe (or would like to go), if you love art and art history as much as I do, and enjoy characters who are smart, funny, complicated, and thoroughly human, give Loot a read. If you do, I’ll bet you’ll go looking for this author’s other books. I sure will.