Written by Lance Charnes — In this first-person caper, set in the present day, narrator Matt Friedrich encounters a whole clockwork factory ticking toward deadlines, with the emphasis on ‘dead’.
If he doesn’t find certain stolen art, the women in his life will be dead at the hands of ʼNdràngheta, the Calabrian mafia, a group that makes those Sicilian guys look like your old maid aunt. If he doesn’t find out who’s fencing stolen art, his desperately needed new employer, whom he hopes to bed (again), will cut him loose and not pay him the $10,000 he’s supposed to earn for this mysterious gig.
With no income, he’ll be out on the mean streets of Los Angeles. No-one wants to hire an ex-con. And that doesn’t count the difficulty of reporting in to his parole officer on time, a man who would send him back to the slammer if he knew Matt was flitting all over Europe on a seriously shady venture.
Matt Friedrich trained as an architect and worked for a corner-cutting Southern California art gallery. In a tense early scene from several years previous, he pushes up the auction price of a Corot landscape. Eventually, such shenanigans landed him in the federal Prison Camp Pensacola for 14 months. He rolled over on several of his more dubious colleagues, including Geoffrey Belknap, who fled the country before he could be prosecuted.
Now Matt’s out of prison, working as a barista, staying with a generous friend, and broke. Lawyer fees and restitution payments take almost everything he earns. Four years earlier, he hooked up with a woman in Geneva, Allyson DeWitt, who said she sometimes needs art experts, and now he reconnects with her. She’s purposefully vague about the nature of her business and the identity of her clients, and you sense trouble ahead, of the immersive, page-turning kind!
A few weeks later, a bike messenger delivers a package containing a flash drive, a packet of €1,100 in used bills, a well-used passport with Matt’s picture but not his name, and an itinerary for a trip to Brussels two days hence. Consumed with curiosity, lust for Allyson, and the need for cash, he flies to Brussels and the adventure begins. Author Charnes spends the right amount of time on this preamble, never overweighting his tale with unnecessary details or tedious backstory.
Charnes’s writing is full of Matt’s self-deprecating, breezy asides, and an occasional pleasing literary flourish. He writes: “The Grote Markt is the heart of Brussels. I’m standing in the right ventricle.”
These vivid images not only perfectly capture the moment, but also reflect Matt’s strong visual imagination. In a tense warehouse scene, as the police arrive: “Flashing blue lights bounce off the front clerestories, giving the room a nightclub vibe.”
The asides and humour also cleverly elucidate Matt’s very human character, putting you squarely in his corner: “The pressure from the fifty hundred-euro notes in my pocket eventually cuts off the blood flow to my better instincts.”
Even though he’s seriously back-footed by everything he does not know (and won’t be told) about his assignment, Matt gamely plows ahead. Allyson’s assigned him a partner named Carson, a woman short on details and temper. They make an interesting pair, as they delve into this complicated scam. It appears that stolen artworks are being used as a way to move large amounts of dirty money, since cash has become too easy for governments to track. Charnes gives both Matt and Carson skills the other doesn’t have, which makes for a believable partnership, even if Matt is never quite sure whether he trusts her.
Alas, the suspected stolen art mastermind they track to Milan turns out to be Matt’s nemesis Belknap. They decide to try to get close to Belknap’s operation through his beautiful assistant Gianna Comici–a strategy fraught with both risk and the potential for some much-needed romance. Will she help Matt? Will she rat him out? Will Belknap see and recognise him? Who has the stolen art anyway? And where the heck is it?
Author Charnes has developed a meticulously complex, rapid-paced plot, and some of the ways the scam works are briefly difficult to follow, but you never believe for a moment that he hasn’t thought the whole thing through. The subtitle of this book – The Dewitt Agency Files #1 – sets you up for the final scene, when Matt receives an envelope with information for his next case. More excitement to come!
For more art-related crime fiction see Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus.
Wombat Group Media
CFL Rating: 4 Stars