Circles of Confusion
by April Henry
Published by HarperCollins
274 pages, 1999
Baroque and Desperate
by Tamar Myers
Published by Avon Books
250 pages, 1999
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
When it comes to mystery fiction, nothing tops a pricey antique as a catalyst for crime. Love, hate, lust, greed -- they're all mere motives. An antique, though, is a character in and of itself. It can be deceptively ugly or transcendently beautiful. It can be disguised, it can be disfigured, and its reputation can be impugned. It can be an object of affection or an icon of fear. It is irreplaceable, and only an impartial expert can verify its identify. It can make a fool out of most characters in a story, and get plenty of people killed. It tends to attract what you might call a higher class of criminal.
New books by veteran mystery writer Tamar Myers and newcomer April Henry are both set in the volatile world of the antiques trade. But while Myers' book, Baroque and Desperate, is an uproarious romp through America's not-so-genteel South, Henry's Circles of Confusion mixes the wry with the thrilling as a naive young woman, Claire Montrose, attracts the attention of a band of international art thieves.
"Do you think it could be real?" Claire asks her relentlessly pragmatic boyfriend, Evan, when they find what appears to be a 17th-century oil painting of a beautiful woman hidden amidst piles of junk in a Portland, Oregon, mobile home that she has recently inherited from her great aunt. He sneers:
"Real in what sense? That you are holding it in your hands? Then yes. In the sense that it's a valuable painting? The chances of that are near zero."
Despite Evan's experience as an insurance adjuster, his calculations about the painting are dead wrong. Claire comes pretty close to ending up dead herself when, defying Evan, she flies to New York City in an attempt to identify the painting and is pursued by men far more exotic -- and dangerous -- than she's used to.
Henry has filled Circles of Confusion with intriguing characters: Roland, Claire's micromanaging boss at the Oregon state car-licensing office; Troy Nowell, the snooty appraiser at a New York auction house, whose clothes "said 'money' in an understated way"; and Claire's late Great-Aunt Cady Montrose, who had seemed to be an undistinguished spinster, but whose diary reveals that she'd led a secret life in Nazi Germany.
Henry's characters often talk right past each other, creating poignancy in some scenes (as when Claire attempts to hold a conversation with her self-centered mother) and suspense in others. There are also a few romantic sparks flying here, as when a handsome artist named Dante takes Claire to New York's Little Italy for espresso ("Now tell me if that doesn't beat Starbucks"), and when appraiser Nowell treats her to an unexpectedly fond farewell breakfast. Or, Claire wonders, were both men merely trying to keep her away from her hotel while their henchmen ransacked her room in search of the painting?
After Claire returns to Portland, the art thieves turn murderous -- leading to chase scenes and bloodshed that don't quite fit with the wry charm of the earlier and ending chapters. But by then Henry has the reader hooked -- as interested in the discoveries about Claire's own identity and her future as in the identity and history of her painting.
Baroque and Desperate is light on discovery, and long on laughs. This latest in Myers' Den of Antiquity series, featuring feisty antiques dealer and divorcee Abigail Timberlake (Gilt by Association, Larceny and Old Lace, The Ming and I, etc.), is a paean to Southern eccentricity.
Returning from a Caribbean vacation to her home in Charlotte, North Carolina, Abigail discovers that her antiques shop has been burgled. The insurance company won't cover the theft, because her vapid teenage daughter spaced out mailing the last payment. Worse yet, Abigail's ditzy mother insists that that an angel has appeared on the wall of the now-empty shop. "When you open and close the door, it flaps its wings," Mama cheerily informs an infuriated Abigail.
In light of these dire circumstances, Abigail accepts the invitation of a wealthy and eligible bachelor, Tradd Burton, to a weekend party at his family's estate. For amusement, his grandmother has hidden a valuable antique, and family members, aided by their invited guests, will compete to find it -- finders' keepers, of course. Abigail wants the antique to revitalize her business -- and maybe a fling with Tradd to revitalize her self-esteem.
Many of the laughs in Baroque and Desperate are at the expense of either Abigail's friend Jane ("C.J.") Cox, a clueless social climber charitably described as "one sandwich short of a picnic," or Tradd, who philanders in a manner guaranteed to raise the hackles of most female readers. In one scene, Tradd takes Abigail to lunch and forgets her existence as he ogles their buxom waitress. Ordering the server to "scram," Abigail turns on her feckless date:
"You," I said, "are a disgusting pig."
Abigail sweeps off to the ladies' lounge, but the joke is on her. She returns to find her lunch -- but not Tradd. The new waitress reports that he left with their original server.
Back at the Burton estate, the sought-after antique prize has yet to be found -- but enough dead bodies are turning up to keep everyone, including the un-stereotypical African-American sheriff, busy. The hapless C.J. has been arrested and charged with murder, and someone has planted some valuables belonging to Tradd's grandmother in Abigail's purse in an attempt to incriminate her.
Myers' books go down as smoothly as mint juleps, but they're probably just as easy to overdose on. Put Baroque and Desperate on the "light reading" list for your next vacation. | March 1999
KAREN G. ANDERSON regularly reviews crime fiction for January Magazine.