Jonathan Santlofer writes his heroes tall. "I'm 5'7" so I like to compensate," he says. And he writes them brave, something else he insists he's not. "I'm a big baby. If I see a knife on the table, I think it's going to jump up and stab me."
But Santlofer and his characters do have one thing, a big one, in common—a preoccupation with art. In his mysteries, art fuels everything that matters. Killers conflate violence with artistic expression, while the good guys look to visual art for clues to catch the villains.
As for Santlofer, he was a successful painter for decades before he became an author. He has been pursuing both careers since publishing his first mystery, The Death Artist, in 2002. With his fourth book, Anatomy of Fear (Morrow, Apr.) he combines his two talents, in what the publisher is calling "a novel of visual suspense."
A police sketch artist tracks a sociopath who leaves behind elaborate drawings of his victims. A plot that revolves around sketches gives Santlofer the chance to sprinkle pictures throughout the book, some representing his character's' sketches, others illustrating scenes almost as in a graphic novel.
The drawings aren't a gimmick, says Santlofer, but a storytelling tool. "If the pictures didn't enhance the plot, the pictures went," he says. Explaining his decision to combine the two disciplines, he adds, "This is going to sound really California, but I'm really at a time in my life when creative energy is creative energy. It doesn't matter how you use it."
Sitting inside his artist's studio in Manhattan one recent afternoon, we are surrounded by both sides of his art—those works meant for a gallery, and those headed for the bookstore. Dominating one wall is an oil painting made to resemble an imagined wall in Andy Warhol's studio, with insouciantly arranged pictures of such icons as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Onassis. On another wall, Mona Lisa smiles while words run across her face, backwards as if written inside the glass that encases her at the Louvre.
A third wall is dotted with unframed pencil sketches drawn for the book. One shows a young woman in a hiked-up miniskirt stabbed, lying in her own blood (his daughter, Doria, modeled for the sketch). Another sketch shows a man is slumped in a chair, fatally shot, his body on fire (Santlofer drew this one looking at himself in a mirror).
The author has never really kept his two careers separate. He set his first three books in the upscale world of people who create, sell or can afford to buy fine art. The heroine of those books, Kate McKinnon, is a statuesque beauty who can dazzle Manhattan's elite with her knowledge of art history and outwit a serial killer with equal grace.
In Anatomy of Fear, Santlofer leaves behind Kate and her rarified environment for the grittier community of New York cops and Nate Rodriguez, the tall, handsome sketch artist brought in to solve a series of killings. Fans of Santlofer's earlier books needn't worry; Santlofer says he'll bring his heroine back.
Santlofer owes his dual career to a crisis. In 1989, a fire at a Chicago gallery wiped out most of his art, so he moved with his wife, Joy, and daughter to Rome to begin rebuilding a body of work. During that time, he started writing. In the wake of the fire, he discovered a new interest in creating something literal and tangible. He abandoned the abstract work on which he'd built his reputation and began painting representational art.
"Most people don't like you to change too much," he recalls. "All the critics who'd supported me turned on me. It took five or six years to get back on track and for people to take my work seriously again."
That may help explain why he thinks of publishing as kinder than the art world. Another big difference, he says, is that books can reach an audience far beyond the few who frequent art galleries. "If you write a book, thousands of people will read it," he says. "It's a totally different way of connecting to the public world than you would ever have as a painter."