Title: The Raphael Affair
Author: Iain Pears
Publisher: Harper [originally 1990, this edition 2007]
No. of Pages: 246
Jonathan Argyll, an Englishman in Rome, is arrested for breaking into a church. But he makes some wild claims about why he was at the church so Flavia di Stefano of the Italian National Art Theft Squad is sent to interrogates him. He tells her that he was at the Church to look for a painting which he believes, due to his art history studies, is covering a previously unknown work by one of Italy’s 16thCentury Masters: Raphael. When the painting goes missing from the church and turns up as the property of an English art dealer the world becomes engrossed by the possibility of a ‘new’ Raphael painting.
This is a fairly simple story but it’s very well told. It’s full of wonderful detail about Italy, the art world and how forgery scams work but there’s a decent plot, containing the requisite amount of red herrings and wrong turns, too. As is the way with cosies, there’s not too much focus on the nastier elements of crime and, instead, the reader gets taken on a romp through the madness of Italian politics and the outrageous things people will do in the name of art (or love) (or money). Silly scenes, such as the one where Flavia and Jonathan hide in a toilet for several hours, could be trite if not done well but here it was amusing.
The characters are charming. As well as Argyll, something of a bumbling though clever Englishman, and the sometimes-sarcastic, mostly hard-working Flaviathere’s the ‘shade overweight’, coffee-loving Generale Taddeo Bottandowho is in charge of the Art Theft Squad. All of them are people you’d like to sit in a café with while sipping an espresso and discussing the meaning of life.
As with most cosy mysteries the success factor lies in a combination of vaguely plausible story, fun characters and a back drop that interests the reader. One of the reason I struggle to find cosy books I like is that many of the backdrops don’t interest me that much (so many seem to involve anthropomorphised cats and/or cooking) whereas The Raphael Affair’s focus on art history and Italy was a winning combination for me. If Donna Leon and Alexander McCall Smith wrote together I think the product would be something like this delightful book.
My rating 4/5
My thanks to Susy of the 4 Mystery Addicts online book group for recommending this series.
There are 6 other books in the Jonathan Argyll series with the last one published in 2000. Pears has written several standalone novels, including a historical thriller, as well and has a novel entitled Stone’s Falldue out (at least in the UK) next month.