Review of The Unknown Masterpiece

The Unknown Masterpiece

At a time when it feels as if the book trade is imploding under relentless digital pressure, it's good to see newer Canadian firms continuing to release fiction of real length. John Brooke's The Unknown Masterpiece weighs in at 284 pages. So much for the 120 page tomes we're told are the new norm. The fourth in Brooke's crime-mystery series involving Aliette Nouvelle as a French senior inspector serving with the Police Judiciaire, it centres on a diligent female detective stuck in provincial Alsace near the Swiss and German borders. Nouvelle is a ten-year veteran tied up with the usual risky traffic along the Rhine River -- illegal immigrants, drugs, and stray floating bodies. Her live-in affair with Claude Neon, her superior officer at the P.J., is on the rocks. Piaf, her old warrior cat, is dead. She's a cop with ambition that could use a case to solve involving travel.

When an art restorer is found dead an hour down the road in Basel, and a second body drifts downriver, Nouvelle has her exit ticket. But not before a pair of dodgy clues surface: the second corpse appears to have been clubbed to death with a picture frame. The river beach where the victim is found is also a known after-dark gay rendezvous. And so Madame Inspector descends on Basel's international art scene for answers in a barf-green police loaner vehicle.

Agatha Christie gave the world an unbeatable formula for murder mysteries -- a crime, an upmarket social setting, plenty of red-herring characters, and a dogged investigative mind intent on bringing the perpetrator to justice. What Brooke, who writes from Montreal, brings in addition is a convincing familiarity with forensics, detailed knowledge of the art trade, and an ability to breathe life into his depictions of French culture as the novel develops. His skill at probing into the venalities of professional art dealing is also impressive. Brooke's characterizations too, draw the reader in. Working in a generally unfamiliar territory in one of her country's less glamorous regions, Nouvelle emerges as an engaging figure and grows more likeable the farther away she is from her partner-boss who never really evolves much beyond a stiff official. The inspector's inquiries lead into murky Swiss banking and museum offices dominated by rank, money and obsessive secrecy. A slurry of cosmopolitan references to Sinatra, Johnny Hallyday, razor-sharp private security firms, and Nouvelle's taste for black, but slightly reserved lingerie, keep the Basel action sufficiently above cuckoo-clock portraiture, but never too far from its workaday mustard-sausage and beer culture either. The gay bar scenes are weirdly campy enough to feel honest.

Brooke's secondary characters -- other police officers, pimply delinquents, museum and gallery personnel, freelance arts technicians -- are well-realized. Nouvelle's emotional range, if not Jungian in complexity, deepens too: "Aliette didn't know if she was going to sleep with agent Rudi Buchholtz -- but it was a notion she was willing to explore." She's not your regular Miss Marple.

The action moves best when Nouvelle is hounding after witnesses or settling up strategies for uncovering the multi-layered identity of the mystery painting/murder weapon. It's the inspector's own collapsing relationship with Claude Neon that warrants more explaining. How does a bright woman detective fall for this wooden bureaucrat? Plus ça change...


— Trevor Carolan SubTerrain

More Reviews of this title

The Unknown Masterpiece

Every so often, John Brooke gives us a clever book featuring Inspector Aliette Nouvelle, who chases down criminals just inside the French border. In this novel, she’s called to Switzerland to investigate the murder of a Basel art dealer. But the book begins with the death of Aliette’s dearest and most cherished friend. If I weren’t already a fan, the death of Piaf the cat would make me one for life. Brooke knows how to tell a story and maintain suspense, but his strength is in his carefully crafted characters. This is the best Aliette Nouvelle so far.


— Margaret Cannon The Globe & Mail

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