The Black Painting: A Novel
“An entertaining, intriguing, and well thought-out novel with hints of the supernatural hovering in the background.”
Arthur Alfred More is a “secretive dealer of European art, a man with a big house, a bad heart, and three estranged children.” He also has four grandchildren who fear him.
When he sends for those grandchildren, requesting to meet each privately, they know it means nothing good. He plans to give all four an envelope listing their shortcomings and what must be done to correct them if they want to be his heirs. Unfortunately, Morse dies before he can do this. The police decide it’s murder.
This is the second time tragedy has struck the Morse home at Owl’s Point. Twenty years before, Morse’s wife took a fatal tumble down the stairs. On the day of her funeral, someone broke into the study, assaulted the housekeeper, terrorized the youngest grandson into a catatonic trance, and stole a painting, the infamous Black Painting by Francisco Goya, in which the artist revealed the torment of his later years.
“Goya was beset by a demon. He spent months purging himself of it by painting those horrific images. He painted on the plaster walls of his house and they were transferred to canvas after he died. There were fourteen, some conjecture a fifteenth, the one Teresa’s grandfather owned, the haunted self-portrait that left one man dead in her lifetime, and carried the rumor of death and insanity with it.” A servant was arrested for the crime and served time, but he always swore he didn’t steal it, of course.
With this second death, the man originally hired to find the missing painting is brought back to the scene of what he considers his greatest failure. The Black Painting is an obsession for Dave Webster, as it was for Morse and his son-in-law Ramón Marías. It may be missing but its presence hovers over everyone at Owl’s Point, influencing their lives and their actions for the past two decades. Webster is certain that finding it will also reveal who killed Alfred Morse, and perhaps quite a few hidden crimes as well.
Unfortunately, no one wants to cooperate, and Webster is subjected to quite a bit of physical violence as he plows a determined course toward discovery.
The Black Painting is a psychological thriller highly reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s mysteries. Indeed, the cast of characters as well as the setting could come directly from Dame Agatha’s tales. We have the gathering of a dysfunctional family at the mansion where the now-deceased patriarch lived, a man who disliked his children as much as they hated him. There are the children, men who terrorize their own offspring. The grandchildren . . . successful, handsome Kenny; maladjusted James; sluttish, outrageous Audrey; and the meek and timid Teresa. The devoted housekeeper, the cook, and her larcenous brother. Last, but not least, is the catalyst, the melancholy, obsessed detective who arrives on the scene to stir up more trouble. Plenty of dialogue and many allusions to dark and mysterious past events upon which no one will elaborate.
David Webster is an enjoyable creation of a detective. He’s no Hercule Poirot, though he is a bit of a chip off Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe without the fatalistic cynicism. His “little grey cells” are only attuned to anything concerning the missing, perhaps mythical, Goya painting. He’s also a man with his own phantoms and sorrows which have beaten him down. He’s not much good in a fistfight, but he’s still vital enough to be attracted to one granddaughter while having an affair with the other.
Don’t think this novel is a mere Christie knockoff, however, for it rises above this comparison to stand on its own merits. It’s a cozy mystery with enough twists and challenges to wrench the reader out of his comfort zone. The dialogue is brisk and blunt, the sex not graphically described but merely suggested through perception and reaction, with a humorous edge. Suggestion, in fact, plays a great part in this story—how everyone reacts to everyone else, as well as how they respond to the way the painting has influenced their lives.
Neil Olson has written an entertaining, intriguing, and well thought-out novel with hints of the supernatural hovering in the background. It’s a good bet even the veteran mystery reader won’t guess the culprit of this one.