Review: Alex Connor’s thrillers; from ‘The Rembrandt Secret’ to ‘The Caravaggio Conspiracy’

Alex Connor, The Rembrandt Secret (Quercus, 2011), ISBN 978-1849163460;
Alex Connor, Legacy of Blood (Quercus, 2012), ISBN 978-1849163620;
Alex Connor, Memory of Bones (Quercus, 2012), ISBN 978-0857389626;
Alex Connor, Isle of the Dead (Quercus, 2013), ISBN 978-0857389640;
Alex Connor, The Caravaggio Conspiracy (Quercus, 2014), ISBN 978-1782065043)

What prompted me to read these books was a bit of crowd sourcing I did when I first thought about the ‘Art History and Renaissance in Fiction’ section for this blog. After all, I did read both Art History and English as an Undergraduate student, and would describe myself as an avid reader. I especially love historical fiction, which remains my favourite type of reading for relaxing, so embarking on a book review section for the blog seemed obvious! So, I posted a question on Twitter and Facebook to ask friends for their thoughts on which books to read and tackle on the blog, and got a wonderful, rich list of suggestions back. Pleasingly, quite a few of the suggestions were for books I had already read (such as Sarah Dunant’s books, or, for example, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red) and I fully intend to work through that list and report back on my thoughts. I love historical fiction, so when a few friends suggested Alex Connor’s thrillers, I decided to give them a go.

For each of these five books, Connor sets out two parallel narrative strands: one is set in  the contemporary art scene of London and invariably revolves around the brutal death(s) of an art dealer/ clients connected to the art scene, usually in a particularly gruesome manner (disembowelling, scalping, acid attack and cut out tongues are recurrent methods) whereas the second strand of the narrative hinges on an artist (Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Titian, Caravaggio) and follows some secret that affects their lives. The murders in contemporary London are linked to the fate of the artists. or a document, art work, relic passed on through generations. And so we have a hunt, where the story follows an ever- accelerating series of gruesome murders, the art dealers of London are gripped by debilitating fear ( some even close their galleries!), and then a hero emerges who swings into action to unpick the mess. Our hero always has insider knowledge of the artwork and the art world, but because of a chequered past hovers on the fringes of the scene and therefore effortlessly moves in and out of the galleries, and  travels at ease between London, New York and Berlin and brings the series of murders to a stop, usually after a revelation that discloses hitherto unknown information, so the reader has been kept guessing all along too.

Do I like these books? Sorry, I don’t. As thrillers go, these are fast-paced, competent page turners, and their heroes and villains engage in battles that drive them on and keep the stories moving. I certainly have read worse, and they’d while away a plane journey quite effectively. What I dislike is the way the artist and/or artwork becomes a throwaway plot device. The framework for the stories firmly relies on the recognisability of the contemporary context, of 21st century London, New York, Berlin,  but for the story to work on that level, we really don’t need the mystique of, let’s say, a letter about Rembrandt, or Goya’s skull, or a lost canvas by Caravaggio- overkill. The historical (well, usually invented but historicised) object just becomes a cheap gadget, some story device, and really, once you take a step back from the stories, adds nothing to the thriller apart from being ‘a very desirable thing’. So, as thrillers go, competent enough, but will it mean I’ll read Connor’s next instalment,  The Bosch Deception? What do you think? No. Really not me thing. Now, when did Hilary Mantel say again that the third instalment of the Cromwell trilogy would be out ….



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