Friday, 13 June 2014

Mystery Review: 'Stealing Venus' by Richard John Mitchell

Its an odd thing, reading. There you are, chugging along quite happily through a story, feeling perhaps that its not the most thrilling read ever but theres something appealing about it, and then something trips you up and you just cant stand it a moment longer. Here, it was the meal at Le Gavroche that brought me to a standstill. Now, the author has a wordy style, I understand that. Every setting is described in great detail, every character given a name, an appearance, a backstory, the food and drink lovingly listed. Thats OK, I dont mind wordy.

But then we came to the female leads heavy date, and things went seriously overboard. It takes an entire chapter to describe how she showers and dresses for the evening (painting her toenails after putting on dress and shoes, apparently), her journey to the restaurant, what her date is wearing, a great deal about the restaurant, what they drank, what the waiters looked like, what the menu was like... The chapter ended with them only at the first course. And this is what the writings like:

The Maitre D arrived at their table and introduced himself.  He was silver haired and spoke with a slight French accent.  He was perfectly charming to them but Lucy imagined he would be formidable with tardy waiters.  He chatted for a minute or two and remembered Rupert from his last visit, which she could see made Rupert rather pleased.  They were asked if they would like to see the menus, but they chose to wait until they went downstairs.  The Maitre D moved on to the next table, and the barman appeared with a bottle of Taittinger to see if they would like a refill.  Lucy declined gracefully, remembering that she had drunk too much last time she had been with Rupert in Lindys gallery. They finished their glasses and were conducted downstairs to the dining room by a waiter in black jacket, waistcoat and bow tie.  The dining room was long and narrow like that of a ship.  It had seating for sixty and was about two-thirds full.   The style was similar to the bar above, except that here the walls were green and framed in gold and wood.

Now, Im sure there are multitudes of readers who love this sort of minute detail, and many more who arent bothered one way or the other, but for me, it was just a deal-breaker. Im very pleased for the author that hes quite obviously visited Le Gavroche, but personally, Im more interested in other things. Like the characters. And the plot.

On the plus side, theres a really interesting story buried under this snowstorm of words, involving art forgeries, ex cons, devious gallery owners, stately homes and some fascinating background on the art world. Here the author is quite awesome, and although I know nothing at all about art, it had a totally authentic ring to it, to my ears. The detail about forgery techniques and the lengths painters will go to achieve a convincing effect is amazing, plus the astonishing level of observation needed to catch them out (watch for the wormholes, apparently). The author tosses out the names of artists and works and styles with an understated command of his subject which I could only admire.

The characters are mildly interesting without being particularly unusual (apart from the young Goth, perhaps). Given the moneyed setting of fine art, inevitably most characters are wealthy middle class or upper class, very English, and the settings were appropriate to that: London, Cambridge and the south coast. I rather enjoyed the descriptions of these places, and its obvious the author has done his homework.

For anyone with an interest in art whos less picky about writing style than me, or perhaps is riveted by the history, layout and menus  of Le Gavroche, I can recommend this, but I gave up at the 30% mark. One star for a DNF.


  1. My problem with that snippet of writing style is that it's all 'noun did this', 'noun did that', 'noun was this', 'noun was another thing'. I hope the rest of the book wasn't as flat...

    1. Actually, that's pretty much how it was the whole way through, although not always in quite such solid paragraphs. I don't mind the 'noun did this' part so much as the mind-numbing level of unnecessary detail. I think at one point he tells us how many pens are on the heroine's desk, and exactly how they're arranged...