Art expert Helena Marsh and her wannabe lover, ex-Budapest policeman Attila Feher, are back and chasing more bad guys in a mystery set in motion by a painting
By Kim Honey, Zed Book Club, April 6, 2021
At a time when travel is impossible and Europe may as well be in Antarctica, Anna Porter’s new murder mystery Deceptions takes the reader on a grand tour of Paris, Strasbourg and Budapest, with a side trip to Rome.
These are cities the author knows well, given the former book publisher was born in the Hungarian capital and, in pre-pandemic times, often travelled abroad for book fairs, launches and talks. She also accompanied her husband Julian Porter – a lawyer, art critic and author of two art books – on trips to the continent’s grandest museums, galleries and churches.
In fact, the author’s second novel featuring art expert Helena Marsh, which came out April 6, took shape on a vacation four years ago.
“Julian, in addition to being fascinated by art and artists, is also in love with cathedrals. As far as I can tell, they’re often quite interchangeable,” Porter deadpans. “We went to Strasbourg specifically to see the cathedral, which is where Julian spent all his time, leaving me free to wander about and imagine scenes and ideas.”
When the first chapter opens, Helena is getting a pedicure near her office in Paris when she smells the signature scent of her former lover – “wet wool and cigarettes” – before she sees him. Retired Budapest detective Attila Feher has taken a gig as a bodyguard to the Hungarian government’s Council of Union representative in Strasbourg, and offers Helena a job authenticating what the politician believes to be an undiscovered painting by the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi that hangs in his Strasbourg apartment. If this artwork, reminiscent of a real Gentileschi called Judith Beheading Holofernes, is the real deal, it is worth tens of millions of dollars.
The Crossroads of Europe
The bells in Strasbourg’s cathedral, a marvel of Gothic architecture, are calling the faithful to Sunday mass as Helena navigates throngs of tourists on her way to an Ill River boat tour, where she meets a mysterious man on board to discuss the painting. When he is shot in the neck with an arrow, Helena jumps off the boat onto the nearby embankment in hot pursuit, only to lose the marksman when he ducks into the cathedral. While the killer gets away, Helena finds the murder weapon – a longbow – stashed underneath a bench near the exit, and the race is on to figure out who the dead man is, who killed him and why.
The book was inspired by this French city near the German border, which is home to the European Union (EU) Parliament as well as the Council of Europe, a human-rights organization made up of 47 nations, some of which, like Hungary, are EU members.
“I really started with Strasbourg,” the author says about her follow-up to 2017’s The Appraisal, featuring the crime-solving art expert and her ex-lover. “I found the city fascinating. I also found the whole European Union thing, and all the divisions within the union and all the somewhat occasionally discredited countries that take part in the voting process, fascinating.”
In the novel, Hungary is described as a kleptocracy led by a pocket dictator, and his deputy and minions play a central role in the plot. In the interview, Porter points out friends of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are exceedingly well off, and the mayor of his tiny hometown, for example, is now one of the country’s wealthiest men.
“I avoided using any of the [politicians’] real names and I avoided using the name of the prime minister,” Porter says diplomatically, adding, “He knows how I feel about him.”
Like The Appraisal, there are multiple dubious buyers interested in the painting and a mystery within a mystery about its provenance. Deceptions is about deceit in politics and the art world, which is filled with shady characters trying to launder money through artwork or make their fortune off forgeries and copies. It adds up to a plethora of bad guys, who include a Ukrainian oligarch and a member of the Russian Federation’s intelligence agency, formerly known as the KGB, and speaks to Porter’s obsession with the “dark, European world of corruption.”
“One of the joys of reading a mystery is being able to figure out whodunit or whydunit, or what it’s all about. So it’s a little bit like a puzzle,” Porter explains.
As for Artemisia Gentileschi, an early follower of Caravaggio whose father Orazio Gentileschi was also a painter of renown, Porter was intrigued when Julian told her the backstory of the 17th-century female artist who made it in a man’s world. In the novel, Helena reveals Orazio bragged about his daughter, who started painting in his studio at 12 and produced her first signed work at 17. A year later, Artemisia was raped by a friend her father hired to teach her, which is documented in court transcripts from a 1611 trial when her father sued the friend because he had besmirched Orazio’s reputation.
“Her art is very, very physical and you really get a sense of the blood and guts of what she is portraying,” says Porter. “All she wanted to do was paint. She was a huge admirer of Caravaggio and his style of art in those days was an innovation. And she just persevered. She was tough.”
As the novel hopscotches around Europe, the reader gets an insider’s sense of place, including the customs and the culture of each country, and that includes a smattering of phrases in Hungarian, Russian and French – all languages Porter speaks and reads. When Attila answers the phone, for example, he says, “Csókolom,” a Hungarian greeting that references an old hand-kissing custom and means hello and goodbye. In Paris, when Attila orders a bottle of Bordeaux because a waiter tells him it was a good year, Helena knows Attila has been taken for a tourist since the last good year was 2015. You can easily picture the Saint-Germain-des-Prés café and see the disdain on the server’s face. In Budapest, Helena joins a tour of the Hungarian Parliament building, where she breaks away from the group to snap photos of the office doorplates where she glimpses the Strasbourg killer entering the building. All of them have the prefix Dr., which is commonly used to convey importance. “None of the doctors she had met in the east had medical degrees, though a couple of them in Poland had offered to examine her,” Helena says.
Porter was careful “not to have too many long complicated names with lots of consonants and not enough vowels,” but admits she’s not sure how to pronounce the name of a Polish museum director who appears briefly in the book.
When asked how her heroine Helena has developed as a character since The Appraisal, Porter says the woman who travels with weapons and a case of disguises – and knees a thug in the nether regions in one scene – has a kinder, gentler side when it comes to Attila.
Deceptions holds promise for their future relationship, but that won’t be revealed for a while as the next book in the series is on hold while Porter writes more magazine and newspaper articles. There’s also a new contemporary novel taking shape that is set at a cottage on Lake Huron not unlike the one the Porters own near Honey Harbour, Ont.
“I’m well into it,” she says. “It’s the only thing that keeps me sane during this pandemic. It’s an escape, really.”