Tuesday, 4 May 2010

A book a week in 2010: Saving Caravaggio by Neil Griffiths

First up, my thanks to @caroleagent for suggesting this book. So when a major literary agent recommends a book, I take note. It's gotta be worth a punt, hasn't it?

Saving Caravaggio is an Italian mob/art/crime thriller. But don't let that put you off. Daniel Wright trained as an art historian. Except he wasn't really good enough to carry on and become a world leading art expert. More's the pity. Because now he is an art detective. One of the best. But still only a policeman.

He investigates international art frauds and travels across continents, using his academic background to add credibility to any cover story as he tries to secure stolen artworks.

But there is a complication. He has heard that his favourite artist Caravaggio's long-rumoured-to-be-lost masterpiece 'Nativity' isn't lost after all. A mafioso contact he developed in southern Italy, claimed the painting exists and may be available to the highest bidder. The quest for the Nativity becomes Wright's obsession, but in the process he risks losing contact with all that he holds dear. Saving Caravaggio takes us through the Italian countryside - from the urbane and cultured Florence to the closed society of Calabria - on an increasingly desperate quest to find the Nativity.

I loved the pace of this book. Griffiths builds up a wonderful picture of the different sides to Italian life. From the glamorous and chic city lives of the Uffizi's own Caravaggio expert, the beautiful Francesca Natali, and her powerful art collector and patron Storaro, to the cast of menacing and sometimes hapless characters in Calabria.

Now I'm not suggesting this is all there is to Italian society, but there is a suitably claustrophic atmosphere, where you actually BELIEVE that this is it, such is the focus of his prose and characterisation. The tension winds up palpably as the story progresses and the main characters learn more about themselves and each other.

If you prefer your crime thrillers to avoid any naval gazing and restraint, then this probably isn't for you. If you like a bit of culture, psychological introspection and reflection, then you should consider Saving Caravaggio for your next bedtime or beach read.

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