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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Review of THE BLACK PAINTING by Neil Olson (New Release)

2 Stars
The three children and four grandchildren of Alfred Morse, a wealthy art collector, have been called to his home on the Connecticut coast.  Teresa, one of the grandchildren, finds him dead in his study; he has a horrified expression on his face which is turned towards the spot where a Goya self-portrait once hung.  That painting, believed by several of the family members to be so disturbing that it caused misfortune or death, was stolen 15 years earlier.  Teaming up with Dave Webster, a private investigator hired by one of her uncles, Teresa sets out to find out what caused her grandfather’s death and who stole the painting. 

The book piqued my interest because of its use of one of Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings.  The twist added, however, stretched my credulity.  I know that those paintings are dark and disturbing, but I find it difficult to believe that a self-portrait could be so horrific that it could cause death.  People actually believe a painting can be cursed?    There is also the added problem of a plot which lacks focus.  There are a number of sub-plots so the narrative meanders.  There are sex scenes that do not develop character or advance the plot; they seem included only for titillation.  People like Marc, Teresa’s ex-boyfriend, are mentioned as if they might be important but then are never referred to again.  Then there are statements like “She had been hearing Ramón’s voice in her head a lot for the last two days” even though there has been no prior mention of this preoccupation.  There are also several fight scenes; at times it is difficult to know who is fighting whom.  The feeling given is one of disjointedness; even the dialogue gives this impression.  For instance, Dave mentions, “’You would have a hard time convincing [Pete] of [how lucky he is]’” and Teresa replies with “’I’ve been dreaming of my dad [Ramón] a lot lately.’” 

Another major problem is characterization.  The seven family members all remain flat characters so it is difficult to differentiate amongst them or to connect to them.  There is an attempt at direct characterization (“Teresa was good at reading people”) but this description is inaccurate.  The family as a whole can only be described as dysfunctional; everyone has issues with everyone else and no one trusts anyone.  Not one of them is likeable.  And because the characters are not developed, I found myself not caring about what happened to them. 

The book is repetitive in its use of certain elements.  People keep meeting in the woods and mysterious figures are constantly seen roaming there.  Then there’s the spooky house and the mysterious housekeeper who knows a great deal but won’t talk.  Teresa conveniently forgets and remembers things:  “Who had said that?  Where had Teresa just heard it?” and “then a vision pushed in upon her” and “How the hell could she have forgotten?  Yet she had, completely, until now” and “Another vision intruded on Teresa’s mind.”  Other characters also have strange memory lapses; one person cannot remember a cousin’s address:  “’I slept on a bench.  When I woke up I remembered the address, so I went there.’”  Using memories in this way is not a sophisticated literary technique. 

The long lists of questions also become tiresome.  Teresa, in particular, thinks in long sequences of questions:  “What had they forgotten, and what had their imaginations created over the years? And how would they ever know now which was which?” and “Had her mother known? What would she think, what would the aunts and uncles think? Would they be as indulgent as her cousins?” and “Who had her father really been, and what had he done that severed him from his family?  What did her visions mean, or did they mean anything?  Would she be the same person without them?  Was she brave enough to find out?” and “What was he doing here? What had he learned, and why did he make Teresa so uneasy?” and “What was he doing now? Had Philip dismissed him or was he still on the case?  If so, why had he not contacted Teresa?” and “Was it in Philip and Miranda, as well?  And if so, how had she and James avoided it?” and “What was wrong with her?  What was wrong with all of them?  What was this demon in the blood of the entire family?”  And this is not an exhaustive list!

This is not a book I can recommend.  Plot, characterization and writing style all have issues.  There are no thrills to be found in this thriller.

Note:  I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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