The Lost Van Gogh: A Novel

Image of The Lost Van Gogh: A Novel
Release Date: 
January 2, 2024
Sourcebooks Landmark
Reviewed by: 

The Lost Van Gogh will appeal more to readers who’ve read Santlofer’s earlier art-heist title, because this novel unspools like a sequel.”

Everyone in Jonathan Santlofer’s new stolen-art thriller has a secret. Even Alex Verde, the most naive and innocent person in this tale of sequential theft, is hiding something significant from her partner, Luke Perrone. But isn’t that just New York City life among the young sophisticates? 

Luke’s been painting abstract portraits of Alex (now there’s a contrast of definitions for you—as she’s told him, he could have used anyone as the model), and savors having her living with him even though she’s kept her previous apartment “as an escape hatch.” And he misses her whenever she’s not around, like when she’s off visiting her mother, a couple of hours north of the city—the kind of upstate visit where you might pick up, say, a few decorative items from a local shop, while your partner is home making serious art.

“A glace back at the painting, at the way I’d scumbled paint across the face so it was unrecognizable and mysterious, and I wondered for a moment if there were things about Alex I still didn’t know. . . . I wanted to know everything about Alex.”

Good luck with that, Luke. Santlofer’s storytelling, changing point of view with almost every chapter transition, makes it clear that whether you’re a good guy or an evil type, your motives are mixed. And nobody in this story wants to pour it out a straight version. In fact, Santlofer doesn’t even identify Luke by name until eight chapters into the book. Maybe that’s a minor detail, but a telling one, since a good chunk of the plot depends on Luke and an INTERPOL agent having interacted in an earlier Santlofer novel (The Last Mona Lisa).

In classic thriller manner, the characters’ secrets and motivations are plain to the reader here, ramping up threat repeatedly. Many thrillers of the past, however, hold the threat and let it grow for a number of chapters. Santlofer instead offers quick resolutions of each one, within a few pages. See someone hiding? In a few more pages you’ll know what they spied on and who they reported it to.

But don’t assume that the good guys in art theft espionage are always good, or always opposed to the manipulative evil folks who’ve grabbed what’s not theirs to begin with—Santlofer moves his characters around as if shuffling a deck of cards: One moment agent John Washington Smith is a freelancer; the next, he’s still using his INTERPOL credentials; and brace for his allegiance to shift yet again, as the situation requires.

Although Luke Perrone is the initial protagonist attracting sympathy, Smith in his agent role soon takes over propelling the action—yet he’s clearly confused by events. Manipulating a potentially valuable “missing” painting by artist Vincent Van Gogh takes him into the circle of a tougher character named Trader: “She was pretty, although there was something hard and brittle about her.” Moments later, he’s once more off balance: “The paintings for the trade were here, the plan being to swap them and that was it, wasn’t it? Or were they planning to take the paintings and dump him somewhere? . . . He felt a bit cockeyed.”

The Lost Van Gogh will appeal more to readers who’ve read Santlofer’s earlier art-heist title, because this novel unspools like a sequel where you should already know who’s who and what their ethics and motives are. Short quick chapters make it entertaining, but the constant leaps among points of view reduce the suspense and prevent the characters from developing. The most satisfying way to read this is probably to gobble the book quickly, as a light thriller and a teasing glance into high-stakes art theft. Make your own guess, as you reach the finale and see what’s up with the Van Gogh painting’s destination, about whether Luke is correct in saying that “Vincent would be happy, too.”