When my third book was published, I had originally titled it Provenance until a friend thought readers might confuse it with a city in Rhode Island. Of course it is a mystery and contains several murders, so I decided to call it Deadly Provenance. The story revolves around the confiscation of art during WWII and a missing Van Gogh painting. “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” is an actual painting by Vincent, which disappeared around 1944, and is, in fact, still missing.
The research on this book provided so many possible avenues to explore, it was hard to know where to begin. First, there was the Nazi confiscation of art: the logistics of stealing, storing and moving millions of pieces of precious artworks. Next, what happened to all that displaced art? How much was recovered and how? How much is still missing? Then there’s my world — the museum world. How have museums been involved? Have they helped or hindered the search for missing pieces of art?
Then there are the players. An important character in the historic part of the book is Rose Valland, a woman whose heroic efforts during the war truly saved a great deal of artwork. She is portrayed in Deadly Provenance as the heroine she truly was. Like Rose, another real character in history is Hans van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire. Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter, bamboozled the art world in the 40s with a series of false Vermeers. Did he ever forge a van Gogh? In my book he did.
There is the modern story, where the mystery is solved years later. Protagonist, Maggie Thornhill, a digital photographer, must try to identify and authenticate the painting from a photograph. Can it be done? Has it ever been done? What is the science of art authentication today? How are x-rays, infrared and multi-spectral imaging used in scientific analysis? Don’t freak. I won’t get into this too deeply here.
As mentioned in a former blog, I always visit the places I write about. During WWII, a great deal of art was stolen from Jews and other “undesirables” and stored in the Room of Martyrs at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris. The museum is located on the west side of the Tuileries Gardens and is now a museum of Contemporary Art. Visiting was a treat, although the “Room” is no longer there. Most of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works originally housed there are now on display at the Musée d’Orsay, on the banks of the Seine, in an old converted railway station.
And last but central to the storyline, is Vincent van Gogh, the mad genius whose painting is lost, perhaps forever. “Vase with Oleanders” is not typical of his vibrant colors, his wheat fields or his starry nights. But there’s no doubt this is Vincent’s work, even if his signature wasn’t in the lower left corner of the painting. Which it is.
The painting was owned by the Bernheim-Jeunes, a French Jewish family of art collectors. When they realized their art was about to be confiscated by the Nazis, they hid their collection, including the Van Gogh, at a friend’s mansion – The Chateau de Rastignac, near Bordeaux. Unfortunately, in 1944, the Nazis raided and looted the Chateau then burned it to the ground. Was the Van Gogh trundled aboard a Nazi truck and whisked away? Did a soldier steal it? A civilian in the town? Was it burned with the Chateau?
Today, there is still a great deal of interest in this subject and the world of art looting and theft. I’ve spoken about it to a number of different audiences and each time I must update it because new information appears almost weekly in the news. Lost paintings found, fought over by heirs in the courts, and, sometimes, won. Like Maria Altmann and the portrait of her aunt, The Woman in Gold.
History can never remain solely in the past. Past events have a profound influence on the present and the future. I believe they should.
I admit it. I’m an animal person. I love them all but am partial to dogs and have had many and still do. I’ve read many “animal” books and find them endearing. Today’s blog, though, is not about writing animal stories, but about integrating animals into your novels to give your humans depth, compassion and vulnerability.
Comic relief is one reason writers insert animals into their stories. I recently watched (again) Lonesome Dove on television and laughed (again) at the scenes of the two pigs following the wagon out of Lonesome Dove to embark on a journey north. The journey would be fraught with drama and trauma, and the pigs added a light aspect to ease the tension. But they actually did more than that.
These two sweet little pink creatures gave us insight into one of the main characters of Lonesome Dove, Augustus McCrae. Sure, he hollered at them, kicked dirt at them, spit at them, but he also smiled at them, enjoyed their antics and encouraged them to join the entourage to Montana. What did that say about Gus, a former Texas Ranger who would hang an old friend for breaking the law? He had a definite soft side.
Characters that have a seriously dark job, like a cop or detective, need to have a way to show their human side. Relationships with the opposite sex, kids and family, even friends and colleagues can work. But so can animals. Take my NYC homicide detective, Frank Mead, in The Triangle Murders. In a dialogue, with his sergeant, Mead explains how he came to own a blue and gold, extremely noisy killer macaw named Dexter.
“What’s with the bird?” Jefferies said.
“Dumb move.” Frank sighed.
“Brought my car into a garage out in Canarsie. The bird was in the back of the shop squawking up a storm. Real nasty place, they didn’t give a shit about him. He was covered in grease. So I took him. Fifty bucks. They sold him just like that. I figured I’d clean him up and give him away, to some good home or something.” His face reddened.
“Kinda got used to the company. He’s incredibly smart, talks and, well, never mind. Stupid ass bird.”
Mead, a hard-boiled homicide cop, has a gruesome murder to solve, a dead wife always on his mind, an estranged daughter he feels guilty about. And yet he saves this kooky parrot. Would you have expected that of him? Or are you surprised?
Animals have played similar roles in mysteries for decades. Think Raymond Chandler’s The Thin Man. I can never forget the first movie and my introduction to Myrna Loy as the character, Nora Charles. Picture the scene: Nick Charles is in a nightclub bar being asked by a young woman to take a case, when Nora bursts in carrying Christmas packages and trying to hold onto Asta, her mischievous terrier, by the lead. Asta barrels into the room and Nora winds up face down on the floor, packages strewn everywhere. Unfazed, she gets up, brushes herself off and carries on.
Her dog was the perfect device to show us Nora’s personality. And it was dead-on. Nora is generally unfazed by embarrassing moments like these. But how would you know that without tedious narrative? By using Asta.
Other well-known authors use animals in similar ways. In Robert Parker’s Spenser books, you meet his dog, Pearl, and can picture her lying on the floor on her back with four feet in the air. How many of us are familiar with that pose? She’s entirely comfortable, not fearful or concerned in this position about any danger. What does that say about Spenser and his relationship with Pearl and the environment he provides for her? Safe, sheltered and most probably well-loved.
Elizabeth George, another dog person, has inserted a Longhaired Dachshund, Peach, into her stories. How does she integrate Peach with her characters to give them depth and breadth of human qualities. Yes, this is a quiz.
I know I will personally continue to use animals in my books. I encourage you to consider doing the same. They can add a sympathetic, sensitive and loving element to your humans . . . in ways other humans simply can’t.
I received this sweet poem in a Christmas card but am having trouble finding the poet. The closest I can come is a similar poem by Helen Steiner Rice. Both poems are lovely but if anyone knows who wrote the one below, please let me know. Thanks and have a wonderful holiday!
My Christmas Card List
*There is a list of folks I know
All written in a book,
And every year at Christmas time
I go and take a look.
And this is when I realizedf
Those names are all a part,
Not of the book they’re written in
But deep inside my heart
*For each name stands for someone
Who has touched my life sometime,
And in that meeting they’ve become
A special friend of mine.
I really feel that we’re composed
Of each remembered name,
And my life is so much better
Than it was before they came.
*Once you’ve known that “someone”
All the years cannot erase,
The memory of a pleasant word
Or of a friendly face.
So never think my Christmas cards are just a mere routine,
Of names upon a list that are
Forgotten in between.
*For when I send a Christmas card
That is addressed to you,
It is because you’re on the list
Of folks I’m indebted to.
And whether I have known you
For many years or few,
The greatest gift that life can give
Is having friends like you.
It’s become a tradition for me to send this story out every Christmas. The youtubes are particularly poignant. I hope you enjoy.
When it started, World War I was predicted to last only a few weeks. (The same was true of the Civil War, by the way.) Instead, by December of 1914, WWI had already claimed nearly a million lives. In fact, over fifteen million died in a war that dragged on for four miserable years.
But a remarkable thing happened on December 24, 1914. The front fell silent except for the singing of Silent Night. A truce! There are many examples of truces during wars, but none as famous as this one. The Christmas Truce of 1914.
In the Ypres region of Belgium on Christmas Eve, guns stopped, leaving a deathly silence across the fields. Then suddenly the British watched in astonishment as Germans began to set tiny trees along their trench lines. Soon a familiar tune with unfamiliar words carried across No Man’s Land, the battered and desolate space between the enemies. Silent Night. Stille Nacht.
Soon the British were singing along with the Germans. Soldiers on both sides crawled out of their trenches to meet in the middle and greet their enemy. They exchanged cigarettes and souvenirs. Perhaps a drink or two. And they collected their dead and wounded, carrying them back to their respective sides.
Peace for the day. Only one day because the next day they were back killing each other. Is there something wrong with this picture?
The story of the Christmas Truce came to my attention after reading the non-fiction, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, by Adam Hochschild, an amazing story of WWI. I highly recommend.
I’ll leave you with this thought. If Christmas can bring together mortal enemies for a day, why not for a week, a month, a year or longer? Or forever?
I hope you click on the youtubes below. They will make you sad and happy but most of all hopeful. Wishing you a happy holiday and a prosperous and healthy New Year.
Belleau Wood: Christmas Truce by Garth Brooks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjXa7DnaGjQ
Christmas Truce 1914, Music with captions to tell the story. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsCpLMPI7IY
Behind the Christmas Story: The Christmas Truce http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgLcvjA8NDk
Christmas Truce of 1914. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p05E_ohaQGk
Thanksgiving: Puritans, Pilgrims, and Sexual Obsession
I found this article particularly interesting with the holidays coming and its ties to my research into my mystery about the Salem Witch Trials, Pure Lies. Sexual obsession is not a concept usually associated with Puritans, but this sheds light on a grim and repressed period of time in American history.
“America’s Thanksgiving holiday goes back at least 388 years to the year following the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1620. The Pilgrims were among a number of sects called Puritans, and like many Puritan sects, the Pilgrims came to America essentially because they thought 17th Century England much too bawdy.(1) That England of the time was bawdy — a raucous bawdiness in full bloom — there’s no doubt. But the idea that the Puritans (and Pilgrims) suffered from religious persecution in England is probably a myth. What they suffered from was unease (and maybe too much temptation) at the general licentiousness of English life.
So various Puritan colonies were established in America, colonies with dictatorial repression of daily life, mostly of sexual behavior. It’s an American cultural heritage that few Americans ever talk about, except maybe when they read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a novel about the miseries of an adulterous couple in a Puritan community. Our custom is for three or four generations of family to sit down at a Thanksgiving dinner with hardly a memory that what the Pilgrims and other Puritans were all about was sexual obsession.
A set of ideas about human sexual behavior so strong that the ideas result in strict rules that govern a community by threat of physical punishment easily morphs from philosophy into obsession — and that’s exactly what happened once the Puritans came into control of laws in their colonies in the New World.
The background of the Puritan obsession with sex is a fascinating thread in the history of Western culture. The obsession apparently originated in a close literal reading of the Bible, a fervent belief that the main causes of the suffering of all mankind were 1) the disobedience of Adam and Eve in seeking knowledge of sex, 2) the shame of their nakedness, and 3) their sexual desire for each other. Taking these causes as axioms for social doctrine about sexual behavior led the literalists (fundamentalists) easily into social tyranny. The sexual act itself became the “original sin” — an irony, since the sexual act was the only means available to produce progeny to replace those who died.
The old New England children’s rhyme tells it all: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”
These ideas certainly predated the Puritans, since hatred of women as sexual saboteurs, revulsion at the sex act, and derision of marriage are on nearly every page of the writings of St. Paul and St. Augustine. The great Protestant reformers Luther, Calvin and Knox did little to change these attitudes about sexual behavior, and more or less enforced them. The classical Christian view was that any act of sexual love, in or out of marriage, was a betrayal of God. By the time the Puritans arrived, the classical view had been modified: sexuality in marriage was acceptable, but sexuality of any kind outside marriage was a sin and a crime, punishable with fines, whipping, branding, banishment, and even death.
And the origins? The fervor against sexuality evidently originated in ancient Hebrew law, the ancient fear that man was weakened by sexual intercourse, ancient references to the sex act as the “little death” and a form of castration. In their morning prayers, Orthodox Jews still proclaim, “I thank Thee, Lord, for not having created me a woman.”
Sexuality was inherently evil, the sex act an abomination and a sin, women morally inferior and sources of temptation. If the sex act was needed to produce a new generation, let it be accomplished without lust. So much for the mechanics of Darwinian sexual selection. From a biological standpoint, it’s a wonder the Western world did not go extinct before the Renaissance. But it’s no wonder at all that countless women (and many men) were driven into madness by the incompatibility between the social tyranny of their Judeo-Christian cultural heritage and their evolved biology.
At the Thanksgiving table we think of turkey, children, and grandparents. Let it be so. We need the comforts, especially in our current time. But we should also be thankful that we’ve come out of the darkness of the past, the darkness of ignorance and social tyranny. That too is something that needs the giving of thanks.
Note (1). Whatever “persecution” the Pilgrims suffered in Europe was political rather than religious. The Pilgrims were Puritan separatists. The sect of Puritans who came to be known as Pilgrims wanted complete separation from the Anglican Church. Other Puritan sects did not demand separation. It was the vocal opposition of Pilgrim leaders to the Anglican Church and the King of England that caused their problems with government. The Pilgrims left England for Holland, were unhappy in Holland, and eventually achieved financing by English investors and migrated to America.”
Written by Dan Agin and posted 3/18/2010, updated 11/17/2011. Reprinted from the Huffington Post.