B. A. Shapiro’s new book “The Art Forger’’ is billed as a literary thriller. But the Boston-area author’s sixth novel offers no heart-pounding action, no breakneck pace, only a modicum of suspense, and an unlikely threat of violence toward the end. Fans of James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and Michael Crichton expecting an adrenalin rush are likely to be disappointed in Shapiro’s mostly leisurely pace, layers of back story, and lengthy excursions into the history and practitioners of art forgery.
What Shapiro does deliver is a satisfying, plot-driven novel of revelation, an intriguing, ladylike mystery with a puzzle or two at its core. It’s an engaging tale about art, cupidity, and a Faustian bargain, using as backdrop the real-life, still unsolved 1990 theft of 13 artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Written from the point of view of Claire Roth, a struggling Boston artist, the novel opens with an offer too good to be true. Three years prior to the novel’s present time, Roth was blackballed from the art scene. To pay her bills, she’s been copying paintings by Camille Pissarro and Edgar Degas for Reproductions.com, a legitimate business selling copies of master-works. And Claire is very good at mimicking the style of long-dead painters.
Because she desperately wants to return to her own work, a series of boldly executed “Hopper-esque” urban windows, she’s ripe for the flattery and the deal Aiden Markel offers during a visit to her SoWa studio: He’ll give her a solo show at his prestigious Newbury Street Gallery if she’ll copy one of the Gardner Museum’s missing masterpieces, a Degas, and keep quiet about it, allowing him to pass it off as the original. He promises her $50,000 and hints that her complicity will help him facilitate the return of the Gardner’s stolen painting. What ensues is a cascading chain of events that will keep readers turning the pages to find out who is telling the truth about the whereabouts of the real Degas.
Shapiro convincingly depicts the rarefied art world that lionizes a chosen few and ignores the talented, scrabbling outsiders on the fringe. Shapiro is adept, too, at showing the white-hot heat of an artist engaged in creating a painting. She knows art history, painting techniques, and how forgers have managed through the centuries to dupe buyers into paying for fakes. We learn, for example, how in the mid-20th century the brilliant Dutch forger Han van Meegeren fooled art critics and dealers for years with his faux Vermeers by “stripping an old painting down to its sizing and painting the new one over it to maintain the craquelure, of using phenol formaldehyde as an additive to harden the paint, of baking each layer to desiccate the paint so it’s as dry as it would be after centuries, of further aging the painting with a final wash of India ink and tinted varnish.”
To the present-time narrative of Claire and Markel’s business and personal relationship, Shapiro neatly meshes two additional stories — three, really. One reveals how Claire became a pariah in the art world; another traces “Aunt Belle’s” coy friendship with Degas in a series of fictitious letters from the historical Isabella Stewart Gardner to her niece; and the third involves Claire’s volunteer job teaching art to juvenile offenders, likely a nod to Shapiro’s own background as a sociologist specializing in criminology.
Though it’s misleadingly categorized, Shapiro’s latest offering is an inventive and entertaining work. It makes me want to walk the streets of the up-and-coming SoWA art district and to the Gardner to see those empty frames waiting for their stolen paintings to be returned.