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By Paul Watkins
Published by Faber & Faber
Anglo-American thirty-something Watkins’
seventh novel is a superior thriller, written in dispassionate,
meat and potatoes, tough guy prose, inviting immediate
comparison with faux-Hemingway terseness, and also
presenting a somewhat Hemingwayesque situation.
Young American painter David Halifax finds himself
studying in pre-WW2 Paris, courtesy of a scholarship
he never applied for from an organisation he never
heard of, called the Levasseur Committee. This is
eventually revealed as a front cooked up by Pankratov,
Halifax’s socially maladroit but brilliant Russian
émigré teacher, and his cafe-owning
buddy Ivan, who served with Halifax’s uncle
in the Foreign Legion. Installed in Pankratov’s
atelier, along with affectless model Valya, our hero
soon falls in with Fleury, a successful art dealer.
Fleury, has an unrequited passion for Valya, starts
passing off Halifax’s museum studies as Old
Master sketches. Halifax quickly overcomes his qualms
about this arrangement, needing the money to prolong
his stay when his funding runs out.
Everything becomes more intense with the Nazi occupation.
Halifax is embroiled in a bid to foil German attempts
to expropriate French art treasures. Posing as collaborationist
art thieves, Halifax and Fleury trade forgeries of
Renaissance paintings for ‘decadent’ art
the invaders would otherwise burn.