Saving Caravaggio by Neil Griffiths

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Saving Caravaggio by Neil Griffiths

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A book that's worth reading for its clear-sighted view of the Italian criminal underworld but which has flaws in the plot. There's plenty of action, some sex and a little violence.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: August 2006
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 0670914630

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I did want to love this book. It pressed the right buttons for me: a detective story set in Italy. Could Neil Griffiths challenge the likes of Michael Dibdin, Donna Leon or Andrea Camilleri? It's a reasonably good story, but it's not in that class.

Daniel Wright is a British police officer whose job is to recover stolen works of art. This frequently involves going undercover in Italy and on one such trip to Calabria he is shown what is probably the most famous stolen painting of them all - Caravaggio's Nativity. Wright is an expert on Caravaggio and wants the glory of recovering it rather than letting the Italian police deal with his discovery. Obsessed by the painting he puts everything - marriage, job, his own life and the lives of others - on the line in an attempt to recover the Nativity.

I'm not very knowledgeable about Art, but the Caravaggio is a bit like Shergar, the stolen racehorse: it's well known that they were never recovered. The painting was clumsily cut from its frame in a Palermo church in 1969 and has never been seen since. It may well be damaged beyond repair or destroyed, but if it had surfaced it would have been on the front page of every national newspaper in the world. As I read the book I knew that Wright's mission was bound to fail if the book was to have any credibility.

It's a story with plenty of action though. There's a sub-plot back in the UK of Wright's failing marriage to a rich art dealer. We're meant to believe that it's failing because of his obsession with the Caravaggio, but to me it seemed more likely that it didn't have a great deal going for it in the first place. Danny Wright is from a different class, you see. He's the son of market traders and despite his doctorate couldn't get a 'proper' job in the art world. He's abusive to Sarah's friends but still willing to take advantage of the trappings her income provides. There's a lady in Italy too, working in THE top museum in Florence, but Wright is still trying to make his marriage work - or so he says.

There are some very good word pictures of Italy. Florence in the snow or Calabria in a rain storm will stay with me for a long time, but there were several occasions when the descriptions were overdone, particularly in Florence. Step-by-step descriptions of journeys are only interesting in travel books. Judicious editing could have made so much more of an obvious knowledge - and love - of the country.

What did impress me was the depiction of the criminal underworld. People with gifts are used but the classic mistake is to forget that "... a gift has no value when it's not in the service of the strong." "It must always be remembered they are not ordinary businessmen. They don't understand fairness. Everything must be stacked in their favour. They like their partners to start in an unfair position and then to negotiate better terms for themselves using their favourite negotiation technique - violence." There is a deeper understanding of the criminal underworld than Michael Dibdin in Blood Rain, where the Mafiosi are turned into laughable buffoons.

I liked the characters. Sarah, the wife, came over well - edgy and uncertain, not in love, but wishing she was. There's too much 'definition of character by clothing' for my taste though, particularly when some of the colour combinations which Griffiths obviously thought stylish shouted 'drab' to me. Brown shoes with a grey suit? A black cardigan with a brown linen dress? No thank you. There's also a habit of repeating characteristics - the Italian girlfriend hooks her thumb under her seat belt - to the point where it becomes annoying.

The plot has a lot of potential. 'Is any painting worth dying for?' - as the cover says. What risks should you take to reclaim a work of art? What's the morality of risking other works of art in the chase to recover something magnificent? At what point does the chase for the glory of making the recovery take you over the line between right and wrong? Unfortunately the deal that was set up in the hope of recovering the Caravaggio had a simple and obvious flaw right from the start and I could never let myself fall into thinking it might succeed.

The book was worth reading for the clear-sighted view of the criminal underworld alone, but I think it could have been so much better. Judicious editing and a more believable plot would have helped, but Mr Griffiths could be one to watch for the future. If you care about such things there are some scenes of explicit sexuality and violence.

This book was sent to Bookbag by the publishers, Penguin.

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