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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Raphael Affair

Iain Pears

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To purchase The Raphael Affair

Title: The Raphael Affair
Author: Iain Pears
Genre: Novel
Written: 1990
Length: 226 pages
Availability: The Raphael Affair - US
The Raphael Affair - UK
The Raphael Affair - Canada
The Raphael Affair - India
L'Affaire Raphaël - France
Der Raffael-Coup - Deutschland
Il caso Raffaello - Italia
  • The first in the Art History Mystery-series featuring Jonathan Argyll and Flavia di Stefano

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Our Assessment:

B+ : light and breezy, but good fun and quite clever

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Sunday Times . 14/4/1991 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Pears balances politics, love and danger nicely, in a plot that has a cunning and satisfactory outcome." - Sunday Times

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:

       The Raphael Affair is the first in Iain Pears' (ultimately seven-title) Art History Mystery-series, and it opens with General Taddeo Bottando, the head of the Italian National Art Theft Squad, heading to work -- in offices pleasantly decorated with recovered stolen art. One of his researchers, Flavia di Stefano, looks into and then reports on an unusual arrest the local police recently made, of a twenty-eight-year-old English graduate student caught apparently trying to sleep in a church and arrested for vagrancy. Flavia is not an official member of the force, but she's learnt so much in her time working for Bottando, and is so devoted, that she: "had become a full investigator in everything but name", and she likes the looks of this odd case. And, as it turns out, her slightly unofficial status is useful, given certain aspects of the case as it then develops.
       The student is Jonathan Argyll, and his story is a seemingly wild one: his dissertation is on the: "magnificently mediocre eighteenth-century painter Carlo Mantini", and Argyll suspects that the Mantini long hanging in the church he was found in in fact is painted on top of a Raphael. Flavia is intrigued by the story -- and, a bit, by Argyll --, and Bottando is curious too; looking into the case, they find that the painting isn't there any longer -- recently sold, it turns out, as someone else seems to have figured out the same thing Argyll had, and gotten there first. Everything appears to be more or less aboveboard about the transaction, but the painting has wound up in the hands of "Sir Edward Byrnes, prince of London art dealers". And, yes, the Mantini turns out to be painted over another painting -- an unknown, and of course immensely valuable Raphael.
       Argyll is frustrated about the great art-historical discovery that slipped through his fingers -- especially since he knew just how big it would be. Over the following months the press is all over the story, up to the big reveal of the Raphael, and then the auction of the painting -- all expertly orchestrated by Byrnes. An expert opines about the uncovered artwork, that it is:

without doubt, Raphael's masterpiece, the apogee of the Humanist ideal of feminine beauty.
       The embarrassment of having let it slip through their fingers leads the Italian government to go all out and buy the picture back, to put on fabulous display at the Museo Nazionale, a coup for its director Tommaso (and a bit of annoyance for Bottando, who doesn't want to be involved with any of the precautions for its safety, to avoid being a fall-guy if anything goes wrong (as, of course, it soon must ...)). Tommaso isn't much-loved -- "One day he'll be found in his office with a knife in his back", one of his colleagues tells Bottando -- but is a careerist who knows how to maneuver his way out of tricky situations -- as he already had once earlier in his career in a forgery scandal that, intriguingly, also involved art dealer Byrnes.
       Back in England, sidelined Argyll continues his work on Mantini -- and comes across the first inklings that there's something wrong with this Raphael. The suspicion that it's a forgery -- despite passing all the tests with flying colors -- is faint but grows stronger. The drama heightens when Tommaso suddenly announces his resignation -- and catastrophe and murder ensue.
       When Argyll is back in Rome he finds himself yet again a suspect -- in rather more serious circumstances -- but Bottando and Flavia also understand that, with his expertise, he's their best shot at getting to the bottom of all this. The hunt is on for a second Mantini that might be covering something up -- and when Argyll and Flavia think they've located it they realize that, yet again, someone might have just beaten Argyll to the same conclusion. Things get hairy, but things work out -- if perhaps not exactly how everyone had expected and hoped. Still, the guilty parties are identified and satisfyingly taken care of.
       There's also a sort of a coda, giving Argyll an opportunity for a small (but nicely dramatic) professional triumph, as he finally pieces together the whole story about the missing Raphael and the Mantini-cover-up(s). It's almost too neat to be believed, but it's an amusing final explanation that does fit and is quite satisfying.
       In The Raphael Affair, Pears nicely introduces the characters and their relationships that will feature in the later installments of this series: wise elder Bottando; the beautiful Flavia, who becomes involved with Argyll, who in turn benefits from Byrnes' feelings of guilt and is rewarded with a scholarship that brings him back to Rome (and closer to Flavia) for the long(er) haul. The developing relationship between Flavia and Argyll is left almost too far in the background, but there's some appeal to the understated presentation and how easily they take to one another. Meanwhile, Pears handles the art and art-history very well and while the novel is almost too neatly plotted -- the one other resolved case Bottando and Flavia concern themselves with dovetailing perfectly with this one ... -- one can appreciate the neatness too.
       With Bottando, Flavia, and Argyll all sympathetic -- and very competent, in their different ways -- characters, and Tommaso perfectly disagreeable, it's a very enjoyable start to a good series, and also stands well on its own. The Raphael Affair is fairly light mystery-reading, but a clever, solid, and very enjoyable little divertissement.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 January 2018

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The Raphael Affair: Reviews: Other books by Iain Pears under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Iain Pears was born in 1955. He attended Oxford and has written numerous books.

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