Monday, November 16, 2009

The Art of Crime

I was recently discussing the novel The Thirteenth Tale with a friend. The first novel from Diane Setterfield - a former academic from the UK - is a mysterious tale of the life of a reclusive, yet prolific novelist. The novel was a huge hit with readers: some loved it for its dark, gothic feel but many more loved it for its homage to all things literary. The main character of the book is the daughter of a second hand book store owner and the novel is filled with passages about the love of literature and a reverence for the book as object.

I couldn't help but think of the The Thirteenth Tale and its love of books when I stumbled upon a review for a new nonfiction title called The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: the true story of a thief, a detective and a world of literary obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett. The book tells the true story of John Gilkey, an American who was so overcome by his love of rare books that he stole thousands and thousands of dollars worth of them - not for profit, but just to have. The book also tells the story of the detective who eventually stopped him.

Bartlett's book reminds me most of another book I read a few years ago: The island of lost maps: a true story of cartographic crime, which follows another thief, Gilbert Bland Jr. - who spent years stealing rare maps from libraries across the United States.

Over the last few years, there have been a number of books that investigated the point where culture and crime collide. Simon Worrall's The Poet and the Murderer details the story of Mark Hoffman, who in the 1990s was identified as the forger behind a poem that had shown up at a Sotheby's auction as a long lost work of Emily Dickinson (but was in fact a fake). Jonathan Lopez's The Man Who Made Vermeers examines the life of Han van Meegeren, a Dutch painter who history best remembers as a forger of Vermeer paintings. Art fraud is a popular topic for this type of true crime, another recent title is Provenance : how a con man and a forger rewrote the history of modern art. Described by the publisher as an "extraordinary narrative of one of the most far-reaching and elaborate deceptions in art history" it tells the story of an artist who produced reproductions of famous paintings and the con man who successfully passed them off as real.

Finally, if those crime titles don't leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, this one certainly will: The Billionaire's Vinegar: the mystery of the world's most expensive bottle of wine by Benjamin Wallace examines the story of a particularly expensive - and particularly questionable - bottle of very old wine.

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