The brazen robbey of The Scream painting in Olso in 1994 gained worldwide publicity. Edvard Munch’s most famous work was snatched from the National Gallery in Oslo by a pair of thieves who took a ladder from a construction site, leaned it against the outer wall, climbed up, smashed a window, grabbed the painting off the wall, slid it down the ladder and drove away. A hapless oblvious security guard was not watching the monitors showing the theft and thought the alarm going off from the broken window was a false alarm.
In England Charley Hill and the other members of the Art Squad at Scotland Yard are intrigued and decide to pursue The Scream. The Norwegian police, getting nowhere, are appreciative.
It would take a very imaginative writer of crime fiction to create a sleuth as dramatic as Charley:
“.... half-English and half-American … an ex-soldier and ex-Fulbright scholar who flirted with academia, and then the church, and eventually landed a job as a cop walking a beat in some of London’s diciest neighorhoods ….swaggers when he walks …. can be charming and engaging …..he’s restless and impatient, with a bad temper that flashes unpredictably ...not a good man to cross.”
What he is not is classically handsome. Charley was “a tall, round-faced man with curly brown hair and thick glasses”. I wish more writers would let their sleuths be average in appearance.
Charley gained his reputation as the “rescue artist” for his undercover operations recovering great works of art.
Shortly before going after The Scream he had recovered a famed Vermeer that had been stolen from a mansion just outside Dublin.
Clearly a man who would have been a great actor upon the stage and screen (if it was improv rather than scripted) he played the role of a representative of the wealthy Getty Museum negotiating the return of the painting for the Norwegian government so that the Getty could gain goodwill and the chance to exhibit The Scream in a special exhibition. It seems thin as a cover but Charley was convincing. He has a talent for being what villains expect him to be in his role.
In a you-can’t-make-this-up moment the initial negotiating discussion scheduled without looking at the hotel’s conference schedule turns out to be on the opening morning of the Scandinavian Narcotics Officers Annual Convention!
Charley, while an honest man, had a strong anti-authoritarian streak that rang true to the villains of the world when he went undercover. He explained his primary skill:
“Pissing people off is what I’ve done best in life.”
He almost flunked out of college though he enjoys books, had earned a promotion in the army before picking a fight with an officer that returned him to private and said “[A]t Scotland Yard, nearly every higher-up was a ‘complete dunce who talked through his ass.’ “
Because of his personality, style and appearance no villain thought he was a police officer.
During his career, in addition to his “art” speciality, he went undercover on investigations involving many crimes including counterfeit money and guns.
Along with the fascinating portrayal of a sting to recover The Scream there is a primer on how to be a successful undercover operative including lessons on lying. Go with the truth on small things and reserve lies for big matters.
The book establishes that, while stealing art can be lucrative, the financial rewards can be limited. Dolnick speaks of it being an iron rule in the underworld that stolen art is worth 10% of its fair market value at auctions or galleries. As well, insurance coverage ranges from non-existent to modest. The Scream was not insured. And pre-eminent works such as The Scream must be discounted as they can never be displayed.
Art thieves are motivated by more than money:
Great paintings will disappear, as well, because when thieves steal great art some of the luster of the masterpiece spills upon the thieves themselves. This gilt by association is almost entirely undeserved, but the notion of the dashing thief is so appealing that it thrives even without any evidence to support it.
Hill loved art:
To create beauty was rare and lofty work, but to safeguard cultural treasures was no paltry thing. “You’re just trying to keep these things in the world,” Hill went on. “It’s simply a matter of keeping them safe and protected and in the right places, where people can enjoy them.”
The Rescue Artist is well written. Dolnick moves the story briskly. The characters are better than most fictional creations. It could easily have been an excellent work of fiction instead of real life adventure. I enjoyed it immensely.