The Art of Murder by Jose Carlos Somoza

The Art of Murder
Jose Carlos Somoza
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor
Little Brown, 2005
U.S. trade paper, first edition
ISBN 0-349-11883-3
480 pages; $13.95

It is a well-worn axiom that the average reader reads a mystery precisely because it does not make him think much beyond solving the puzzle, and then only if he wishes to. If he merely wants a bit of relaxation, some reassurance that the world ultimately does solve its problems and that the bad guys get their comeuppance, well, then, even the most nourishing of mysteries will usually give the reader that satisfaction. In the average mystery, no truly innocent person ever goes to jail permanently; no murder is left unavenged; justice is always done, even if it must sometimes be done by unorthodox methods.

It is a most unusual mystery that makes one think hard about questions of ethics, or that will haunt the reader weeks after she finishes reading the book (unless the haunting consists of nightmares of a serial killer’s gruesome methods). Rarely is one left to contemplate the intersection of art and commerce, the human degradation inherent in some forms of labor, and whether art can ever be more valuable than a human life. If you had a choice between saving all the art contained in the Louvre or saving the life of a single human being, which would you choose? Would your decision change if that human being volunteered to die to save the art? Would your decision change if the death itself were a form of art?

In The Art of Murder, Jose Carlos Somoza posits a new type of art he calls hyperdramatism: art in which actual human beings are the artworks. The novel opens with the description of one such work of art:

The teenage girl stands naked on the plinth. Her smooth stomach and the dark curve of her navel are at eye level. She is looking down with her head tilted to one side, one hand shielding her pubis, the other on her hip. Her knees are together and slightly bent. She is painted in natural sienna and ochre. Shading in burnt sienna emphasizes her breasts and moulds her inner thighs and her little slit. We should not say ‘slit’ because this is a work of art we are talking about, but when we see her, that is what we think. A tiny vertical slit, stripped of all hair. We walk round the plinth and observe the figure from the back. The tanned buttocks reflect patches of light. If we step away, her anatomy acquires a more innocent look. Her hair is strewn with small white flowers. More flowers surround her feet – a pool of milk. Even at this distance we can still pick up the strange scent she gives off, like the smell of wood after rain. Next to the security rope is a little stand with the title in three languages: Deflowering.

This type of art makes extraordinary demands on the “canvas.” The humans who become artworks are drugged to an extraordinary degree, so that their bodily functions are almost completely controlled: sweat, saliva, menstruation and other secretions are made to virtually disappear with certain medications, while other medications control the pain involved in holding awkward poses for six to eight hours at a time with almost no movement (even breathing and blinking slows almost to a stop due to meditation techniques). In order to achieve the effects the artist seeks, the artist must “prime” and “paint” the canvas, which work involves psychological as well as physical shaping, often to an extreme degree to obtain exactly the right expression on the model’s face.

The models are treated precisely as objects. Clara, a primed canvas, is proud of her orange-tinged yellow labels, dangling from her neck, her right wrist and her right ankle, because they mean she has been contracted by the Van Tysch Foundation, the home of the foremost hyperdramatic artist of the time. She is transported as a fragile freight item when moved from one country to the next, barely even spoken to. She takes this as a matter of course; she is material, no longer precisely human. As one of those who prepares her for the artist informs her, “Being a masterpiece has something . . . inhuman about it. … Art uses us, my child, it uses us in order to exist, but it’s like an alien being. That’s what you’ve got to think: you’re not human when you are a painting. Think of yourself as an insect. … When you discover what the insect is thinking … then you’ll be a great work of art.”

But if the artist and the canvas do their work well, a hyperdramatic artwork can become worth millions or even billions of dollars, and the artwork and the artist both can become unbelievably wealthy. Canvases live pampered, if lonely, lives in their off hours, able to buy themselves every luxury imaginable, the most beautiful clothes, the most elegant jewels. They are protected from mistreatment by their owners – sexual or otherwise – because only the artwork, not the human, is purchased, to the extent that distinction can be made. When the canvases retire – most quite young, if they have been masterpieces, for the demand is mostly for teenage canvases – they retire for good.

As one might expect, this sort of art has its critics. Protest groups object to the treatment of humans as canvases, and liken their condition to slavery (despite their huge paychecks). Most of these groups do not even know of the illegal trade in humans as objects and furniture; imagine using a human as a chair, a lamp or as ashtray. Nor do they know, save perhaps in their imaginations, of the use of humans in more bloody artistic endeavors, something akin to what we would call snuff films, but which have achieved some degree of underground and growing respectability in the world Somoza posits.

The story begins when one of Van Tysch’s masterpieces is abducted and murdered. It’s an almost impossible crime, because the security surrounding these highly valuable and well-insured artworks seems to be impregnable. But in a world where disguise has reached a level of incredible artistic verisimilitude (portraits use real humans whose faces are covered with cerublastyne, an infinitely moldable substance), it is almost impossible to be sure anyone is who she seems to be. Lothar Bosch and April Wood, employees of the Van Tysch Foundation, must determine who committed the crime. It was grisly and strange: the 14-year-old girl who had modeled Deflowering was killed with a canvas cutter after being forced to read several paragraphs of art theory onto a tape recording.

And it does not seem like it will be the only crime of its type; this looks likely to be the work of a serial murderer. This is a problem especially because Van Tysch’s greatest work ever, an exhibition based on the works of Rembrandt, is due to open very soon. Van Tysch refuses to delay the opening, and despite the very tightest of security measures, it seems impossible to ensure the safety of all the canvases. Somoza increases the tension of the chase with great skill, causing us to worry about the lives of multiple characters and ultimately bringing everything to a horrifying close that will stop your breath in disbelief.

But for me the real value of this book is that Somoza is not content merely to have us follow the investigation of the crime. He spends much of his book showing us objects and canvases and their owners, talking about art theory, and, in particular, showing us how Clara is prepared to be the perfect canvas for one of the Rembrandt pieces. One becomes queasy at the ethics of preparing this human to look sufficiently frightened in the manner the artist chooses, but Clara not only understands, she approves – and encourages those “working” her to take things even further. The idea of using human beings as chairs does not lessen with repetition, but increases. The posing of naked thirteen-year-olds as artworks never starts to feel right, even if one has become able to appreciate the art of Balthus or is comfortable viewing Magritte’s “The Rape.” Even without the murder mystery, then, this book would be fascinating for the premise of hyperdramatic art.

Long after you have survived the shock of this book’s denouement, you will still be reeling from the shock of the challenges Somoza poses to your conceptions of the relationship between humans and art. Everything from fashion modeling to photography to the price of the latest Impressionist masterpiece at auction will have a different patina in the shadow cast by The Art of Murder. This is mystery writing at its very finest.

Hi!

Hi Terry,

This has nothing to do with the entry, just a note to say hello. I saw you mention your blog on counsel cafe, looked it up, and decided to join. As a fellow book junkie, I could do no less.

Some weird typographical behavior I've noticed here. When I was reading as a guest, all apostrophes were rendered as some strange 3 symbol combination. After registering, the apostrophes appeared normal. Except that here where I'm typing a comment, they now appear as question marks inside a dark diamond. Strange.

I look forward to using you as a source of books previously unknown to me. What fun!

JC

Formatting

Hi, John, and welcome! Glad to see you here.

Everything looks fine on my screen -- I'm guessing we're dealing with html tricks that show up differently on different screens. Sorry for the problems. Anyone else having difficulty?

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