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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Art of Murder

José Carlos Somoza

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To purchase The Art of Murder

Title: The Art of Murder
Author: José Carlos Somoza
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 468 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Art of Murder - US
Clara y la penumbra - US
The Art of Murder - UK
The Art of Murder - Canada
The Art of Murder - India
Clara et la pénombre - France
Clara - Deutschland
  • Spanish title: Clara y la penumbra
  • Translated by Nick Caistor

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Our Assessment:

B : creative appeal, but a bit too drawn out

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Sunday Times . 19/12/2004 Joan Smith
TLS A 29/10/2004 Chris Moss

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a real oddity: chilly, clever and gripping by turns." - Joan Smith, Sunday Times

  • "In this exhilarating art-world thriller, however, Jose Carlos Somoza proves there can be action, intrigue and emotional drama -- and a heady dose of sexual tension -- even in seemingly abstract compositions. (...) Wonderfully aberrant ideas about humanity and aesthetics are spun out of this intriguing fiction, which is sci-fi fantasy, thriller and treatise on art and murder. (...) Somoza entices us along with shifts in tempo, offbeat aesthetic and pragmatic interrogations by the two detectives, and some crankily comic visions of the future." - Chris Moss, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       José Carlos Somoza is an ambitious mystery writer: a plain old set-up won't do for him -- and one has to grant him that he comes up with some intriguing ideas. The Art of Murder is built up on a particularly compelling concept, one which again allows him to indulge in a good deal of philosophical and psychological play.
       The 2001 novel is set slightly in (what was then) the future, and there's a new art-form that is all the rage: HD art, short for hyperdramatic art. The canvases used here are real people: prepared like a real canvas, painted on (down to their eyes and the inside of every orifice, where necessary) and then posed. Or, as one not-quite-enthusiast sums up: "it is people who stay stock-still and which others call paintings". These living works of art have also completely changed (and come to dominate) the art market. Wealthy collectors buy the pieces (which pose for a given number of hours a day) and new models replace the old (but only the first is the 'original').
       The master of the art is Bruno van Tysch, and it is every HD models' aspiration to be painted by him. Several of his exhibits figure prominently in the book, culminating in a grand Rembrandt exhibit. But events leading up to it cause complications. Despite elaborate safety precautions, with the living works of art closely guarded and protected, there are a series of brutal murders, the victims some of the most famous (and notorious) works of HD art created. And there are fears that the perpetrator will strike again, his (or her) eyes set on a piece from the Rembrandt exhibit.
       This world, at the highest level of HD art, is secretive and well-connected. Money isn't much of a problem for the Foundation behind van Tysch's doings -- but reputation is, so they're very careful about what information about the murders gets out. The authorities are also interested in helping out, a Rip Van Winkle-agency woken from its slumber to tackle the crimes (with the expectation that it will go dormant again once the job is done). So Somoza balances a variety of vaguely conspiratorial-seeming groups with the almost equally secretive art world van Tysch is master of.
       Much of the story comes to revolve around Clara, chosen to be in the big exhibit, and Somoza has considerable fun in describing how an HD canvas (which is what Clara is once she signs herself over) is prepared and trained. It's not entirely realistic, but it's a clever idea and fairly well-executed. With various threats seeming to lurk both near and far, there's also decent suspense -- though Somoza is simply too wordy to really keep the tension at your usual thriller-level.
       Central to the novel is this new art form, and all that it means and implies. Yes, The Art of Murder is very much a philosophical thriller -- and far from being off-putting, it's that angle that's the most interesting thing about it. He occasionally gets carried away -- most notably in his choice to have them call the murderer they're looking for 'the Artist' -- but he uses the whole HD-idea well. As, for example, one person suggests:

"We have to destroy the human being in order to create the work," say the hyperdramatists. That's what the art of our time has become, April. That is the art of our world, of this century of ours. And not only have they dispensed with human beings, they've also dispensed with all the other arts. We live in a hyperdramatic world.
       Theory is all well and good (and it is quite interesting here), but what makes the novel work is how Somoza describes this hyperdramatic world. From those satisfied to be mere objects (living chairs or lamps, instead of real works of art), to those who indulge in extremes -- taking hyperdramatic art to its (illegal) extremes -- he comes up with interesting variations on the theme. He also develops the HD idea very fully (very, very fully ...) which, for the most part, is fascinatingly spun out. And some of the obvious difficulties are also addressed: not everything is perfect in the HD world, so for example those pesky snakes used in a Medusa-painting (and the poor canvas who has to put up with them for six hours a day).
       Theory and practise constantly collide in this novel, so it's no surprise that the crime is part and parcel of the larger concept. It's an interesting idea, but Somoza has some difficulties in keeping the tension high. For one, he just draws things out much to much. The Art of Murder is a long novel, and the suspense (and philosophy) have trouble sustaining the whole weight of it. The digressions into various personal stories, in particular, slow the pace, while the over-the-top crimes (the murders are particularly gruesome and complicated) also feel a bit forced.
       The Art of Murder is an interesting mix of a novel of ideas and an old-fashioned thriller. It doesn't quite come off but a lot of it is appealing and entertaining, and one has to admire the audacity of the concept.

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The Art of Murder: Reviews: Other books by José Carlos Somoza under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       José Carlos Somoza was born in Cuba in 1959 and now lives in Spain.

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© 2007-2011 the complete review

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