(Reviewed by Katherine Petersen FEB 23, 2009)
“And there it was – love at first sight: my first experience of the transforming power of art. At that time I had a sort of ongoing romantic serial story that ran inside my head at night before I went to sleep, and from that moment the Angel was one of its chief protagonists (the other, I need hardly add, not being St Cecilia).”
Dr. Regina (Reggie) Lee, a staff member at London’s National Gallery, received approval to put together a small exhibition of the three existing copies of Caravaggio’s 1605 painting called “The Angel & St. Cecelia.” With loans secured from The Getty and The Louvre, she just needs to track down the private collector who owns the third. But then, seemingly for no reason, Antoine Rigaut, head of The Louvre’s Italian collection, reneges on his agreement to loan the painting. Mystified, Reggie travels to Paris to investigate.
But Rigaut seems to have disappeared. Reggie finds his nephew, Manuel Rigaut, who directs her to his grandmother only after his uncle’s body turns up, an apparent suicide. Reggie meets with Juliette Rigaut, mother to Antoine and his brother, Jean-Jacque, France’s interior minister, at her chateau in the small town of St Front in the French countryside. Not only does Juliette own the third painting Reggie seeks, but she has much history to share.
Reggie becomes more and more determined to find out the truth of what’s behind Antoine’s refusal to loan the painting especially when more bodies, that might or might not result from accidents, turn up along with a fourth copy of the painting. One of them must be a forgery: the question is which one.
Art and politics blend in this international mystery, the first volume in Ruth Brandon’s series about Reggie Lee. From the busy streets of London and Paris to the slower-paced, beautiful French countryside with its lush landscapes, historic relics and homey bed and breakfasts, Brandon’s settings make the reader feel as if they’re with Reggie every step of the way. Reggie is a likeable character, smart and determined. I hope to get to know her better in future novels, but the character star of this book is Juliette. Fiercely rebellious, independent and clever growing up around the time of World War II, when those characteristics weren’t so popular, she’s vivacious—even as an older woman and her stories grab the reader’s attention.
Art fans will relish Caravaggio's Angel as will those just interested in the subject. Brandon’s knowledge of Caravaggio’s 17th-century painting techniques, methods for analyzing paint and canvas and an overall understanding of the art world add authenticity to this mystery. Russian art scandals, the French resistance and a ruthless interior minister with designs on the presidency give the novel its depth and suspense.
The book has a bit of a slow start but then the pace picks up. Brandon’s writing has more of a methodical, intellectual feel rather than what you’d find in best-sellers focused mostly on the action. For those who appreciate the writing as much as the plot, this makes it even more compelling. Overall, Caravaggio’s Angel is a truly enjoyable mystery, and I look forward to reading Brandon’s next Reggie Lee mystery.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Caravaggio’s Angel at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Reggie Lee, Art Curator Series:
- Caravaggio’s Angel (September 2008)
Earlier Fiction (out-of-print)
- Left, Right and Center (1986)
- Out of Body, Out of Mind (1987)
- The Gorgon's Smile (1992)
- Mind Out (1992)
- Tickling the Dragon (1995)
- The Uncertainty Principle (1996)
- Singer and the Sewing Machine: A Capitalist Romance (1977; 1996)
- The Dollar Princesses: Sagas of Upward Mobility 1870-1914 (1980)
- The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1982)
- The Burning Question: The Anti-Nuclear Movement Since 1945 (1987)
- The New Women and the Old Men: Love, Sex and the Woman Question (1990)
- Being Divine: A life of Sarah Bernhardt (1991)
- The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini (1993)
- Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917- 1945 (1999)
- AutoMobile: How the Car Changed Life (2002)
- The People’s Chef: The Culinary Revolution of Alexis Soyer (2004)
- Governess, the Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres (Governess: Other People's Daughters in UK) (April 2008)
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- Official website for Ruth Brandon
- Salon Magazine review of Surreal Lives
- The New York Times review of Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres
- International Herald Tribune review of Governess
- Guardian review of Governess
- Curled Up review of Caravaggio’s Angel
- My Shelf review of Caravaggio’s Angel
- Mysterious Reviews on Caravaggio’s Angel
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About the Author:
Ruth Brandon is a highly praised biographer and social historian.
She began as a trainee producer for the BBC, working in radio and television. She found television to be a cumbersome medium and soon found she preferred writing, and moved to freelance journalism, and eventually to books.
Ruth Brandon divides her time between London and France.