WITH A GEMLIKE FLAME

David A. Cleveland, Author
David A. Cleveland, Author . Carroll & Graf $25 (320p) ISBN 978-0-7867-0877-2
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Never quite coalescing into a full-fledged thriller or mystery, but involving elements of both, this first novel takes on the art world and its Venetian denizens. When a Raphael masterpiece, presumably destroyed in WWII by Allied bombers, resurfaces in the city of canals, it is scheduled to be sold at a private auction. The art world's big agents—including a glum Japanese, a sinister Swiss, and a supercilious Brit—are understandably excited. Before the sale goes off, however, gallery-owner and scholar Jordan Brooks must determine whether the painting is the original, saved somehow from conflagration during WWII, when it was seized from its owners, an Italian-Jewish family murdered at Auschwitz. And what role is played by a former Nazi officer who knew the original owners? Nonmoneyed art lovers will be shocked to learn that Brooks's lofty research may involve treachery and even murder. Though the tale is slow moving, Cleveland introduces excellent insights into art, old and contemporary, as well as colorful descriptions of a glorious city that is itself a living artwork; love comes into play, too, when the divorced Brooks meets the inevitably nubile grad student, Katie. Cleveland ably contrasts the romantic dream of Venice with today's grittier, commercialized version, dropping names (Dior, Ferragamo, Armani et al.) even faster than bodies. He does manage a few good surprises involving the Raphael and its disposition before indulging in sudden and predictable melodrama. (July)

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