Jesse Kellerman, The Brutal Art (2008)

Mmh, this is the UK title. Americans may know this book as “The Genius”. I don’t think either of these titles is quite good enough, but it really pays off to get past the title and plunge head first into this thriller [Beware, I'm not sure I can say how much I appreciate this book without hinting at some spoiler].

Where was Kellerman when I most needed him, during the winter months when I ran out of luck with books and mysteries in particular? Art has often been the pretext for crime novels, but most of them never take time to describe the art that is worth killing for. Mostly, it’s just a matter of money and of eccentric, driven characters. Here, on the contrary, Kellerman takes time to focus on the painting itself. Quite a nice change! The brutal art in question here belongs to the trend of outsider art, made by people with mental health conditions and no formal artistic training. In those circumstances, it’s dubious that the artist himself would call his production “art” and claim credit for it, so the credit often goes to the person who has “discovered” the art in question. The plot cleverly introduces us to the business of contemporary art and navigates the related questions of who decides what is art, how to set its financial value, the role of the art dealer in giving art a context and a story that will make it more acceptable, and such more marketable to wealthy customers.

The narrator of the story is Ethan Muller, a young and ambitious art dealer in New York, who literally stumbles upon a stash of previously unknown outsider art in a derelict flat. The tenant and artist is nowhere to be found, so Ethan decides to jump on this opportunity to display the art and sell it, making potentially a fortune and a reputation for himself. Of course, part of the story depends upon the reader’s ability to be intrigued by some art he’s never seen (and never will), so the art dealer’s credibility must come out rock solid. Kellerman really plays it all in the first few pages, which are very punchy and awesome for anyone interested in the writing art.

Ethan Muller basically claims from the first sentence that he’s not a nice guy, nor a completely honest one, nor someone who knows how to tell nice stories. (it was a library book and I’m writing this from memory). How clever! I was instantly hooked (I do love complex main characters who don’t seek our love and approval) and Kellerman instantly builds a trust bond with the reader at a meta level (a wink at the start may actually be a good thing).

Because nothing is known about the artist and because parts of his art are really disturbing, suspicions soon link him to brutal children murders committed decades before and left unresolved. At this point a second voice and line of narration start, which I enjoyed less than the first. I rather thought this gratuitous and crowd-pleasing. But at least it also brought more moral questions about the plus-value of scandal in art and how the way we look at a design (as an art dealer or an investigator) changes the meaning and the value of the piece itself.

It brilliantly demonstrates that the body count is not important when a writer masters the art of plotting. Yes, a thriller can be thrilling without a bloodbath and a car chase at the end. I’ll definitely check out other works by Jesse Kellerman, who happens to be Jonathan K and Faye K’s son.

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4 thoughts on “Jesse Kellerman, The Brutal Art (2008)

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this! I own a copy, but have looked at it on the shelf too often and lost the impetus to read it. Plus, you never know quite what you’ll get with a new crime writer. Now I’m enthusaistic to pick it up, so thank you!

  2. I enjoyed this book when I read it and also the Jesse Kellerman’s first book which was a completely different style and subject matter. I haven’t read any since although I have just received a copy of his new book, the title of which I can’t work out as it the package has very strange binding on it. Oh well – I’m sure I will work it out eventually.

  3. Pingback: Liza Cody, Gimme More (2000) « Smithereens

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