Odd couples fascinate Frances Fyfield. Her latest novel, Gold Digger (Sphere, £12.99), centres on the relationship between an elderly man, a wealthy art collector named Thomas Porteous, and the youthful Di, whom he first encounters when she tries to burgle his house by the sea. Di has a natural taste for art and is overwhelmed by what she sees — and by Thomas himself. Against expectations, respect, affection and eventually love develop between them, leading to their marriage. But there are problems in the shape of their respective families — the criminal father who abandoned the young burglar and the damaged, predatory children of the collector’s first wife, who are desperate to get their hands on their father’s estate and raise as much money as they can from it.
Worse still is the problem of age, which leads first to illness and then to the death of Thomas. The vulnerable young widow fights to preserve her husband’s inheritance — not so much for herself as to honour his wishes for the collection. Both sides acquire strange allies and the fight gets very dirty indeed. This humane and beautifully written novel is full of almost sensuous detail not just about art but about living itself. Classic Fyfield, in other words, and highly recommended.
There’s a rather different take on art in Ruth Dudley Edwards’ latest novel, Killing the Emperors (Allison & Busby, £19.99). Her crime fiction usually takes the form of bludgeoning to death one of the sacred cows of contemporary life. The series has several recurring characters, but the bludgeon tends to be wielded most ruthlessly by Baroness Troutbeck, the redoubtable Mistress of St Martha’s College, Cambridge, whose previous targets have ranged from the House of Lords to political correctness in academia. Here Troutbeck turns on modern art: in particular, she charges an unholy coterie of commercially astute artists, gallerists, critics, curators and academics with glorifying derivative and inept work and colluding to drive up its value to levels that are frankly obscene. She names names with gleeful abandon.
The plot serves as an entertaining vehicle for a polemic against the abuses of modern art, which is all the more effective for quoting facts and figures. Meanwhile the story deals with murder, mass kidnapping and a particularly sinister variant of Big Brother, designed for an audience of one (a Russian oligarch with unusual mental health issues). The novel is also very funny and should be required reading in the nation’s art colleges, not to mention for Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Charles Saatchi and Sir Nicholas Serota (or, as Lady Troutbeck prefers, Sclerota).
‘I’m a literature graduate and seek oblivion in drink.’ This arresting first sentence may perhaps have a special resonance for some of The Spectator’s readers and writers. It comes from The Spies (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, MacLehose, £12), a short crime novel by the multi-talented Brazilian author, Luis Fernando Verissimo. The narrator, a frustrated publisher’s reader who dreams of being the next John le Carré, receives a fragment of a memoir by a woman named Ariadne who lives in a provincial town. Its contents hint that the author is beautiful; she is also about to kill herself in revenge for past wrongs done to her father and to the ‘Secret Lover’. Assisted by a collection of even weirder fellow-drinkers from his favourite bar, the publisher’s reader investigates — partly to complete the memoir, partly to save the woman and partly to find out what on earth is going on.
Gangsters, a catalpa tree, five-a-side football and the disgruntled author of the bestselling Astrology and Love all play their part in the story. The novel comes under the label of ‘literary crime fiction’ but it has an unusual elegance and lightness of touch, as well as a lingering underlying melancholy. It’s nicely written too — the translation is as smooth as silk.
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