When I attended college in the early 1960s, I majored in history and minored in art history/appreciation (no drawing classes). When I saw a mention of An Exquisite Corpse by art historian Helen A. Harrison, I was hoping I would like it. In a word, it was awesome.
The story takes place in New York City in October 1943. I lived there then but I was only two years old. The art world of that time is not in my memory. However, the book is populated with artists and historical figures of whom I am familiar.
In the story, Afro-Cuban-Chinese artist Wilfredo Lam is found dead around 10:30 in the night. His friend Andre Breton is the one who finds the body in Lam’s apartment/studio. Breton is a French-born, Surrealist artist and broadcaster for the Voice of America. He is not fluent in English so he goes to the apartment/studio of another his friends, Robert Matta, who is hosting a party of artists and others. Breton is looking for Marcel Duchamp, another French artist, who speaks fluent English so he can report the death to the police. They go to the police station where they spend hours telling and retelling their story.
New York Police detective, Patrick Dillon of the 6th Precinct (Greenwich Village neighborhood) and officers Brian Fitzgerald (also at the 6th) and Anita Diaz of the 23rd Precinct (Spanish Harlem) are the police leads in the investigation. Anita and Brian also provide a romantic aspect to the story. In addition, Detective Sergeant John O’Connell (the 6th) and Detective Hector Morales (the 23rd) are on the team investigating the murder.
Lam’s body was posed in an artistic way known as “the exquisite corpse” which is based on a game that the Surrealist artists play. One artist will draw a head on a piece of paper. The paper is folded and handed to the next artist so the head is not visible. The second artist draws the body and folds the paper. And so on until the whole body is done without any of the artists knowing what had been drawn previously. This causes suspicion to fall onto Matta, Breton, Duchamp, Max Ernst, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and other artists of the time and school of Surrealists living in New York.
There are other suspects. One is the Chinese tong (gang) called the On Leong Association of the Chinatown District in New York City. In Spanish Harlem, there is another suspect, Jose (“Joey”) Ramirez, a gang leader who includes drugs and protection in his criminal empire.
Carlos Solana, a Colombian seaman who has been smuggling stuff into New York, also could be the killer. He has a deal pending with Lam. With Lam dead, he takes his goods to Ramirez in Harlem.
This is the first of three books set in the art world. I cannot wait to read the rest of the books. If you are fond of mysteries set in the 1940s, if you are fond of historical fiction, if you like the art of the aforementioned artists, then this is a book/series is for you. VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
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–Jim Harris, retired book sales rep
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