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Authors: Iain Pears

Tags: #Police Procedural, #Art thefts, #Art restorers, #Rome

Death and Restoration

BOOK: Death and Restoration
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DEATH AND RESTORATION A Jonathan Argyll Mystery

by Iain Pears

A SCRIBNER CRIME NOVEL

From the author of the internationally best-selling literary sensation An Instance of the Fingerpost comes Death and Restoration, the sixth in Iain Pears’s much-loved Jonathan Argyll art-mystery novels.

The monastery of San Giovanni on Rome’s Aventine Hill has no real treasures, except for one huge and disturbing painting, dubiously attributed to Caravaggio, of the breaking of Saint Catherine on the wheel. It’s not a subject likely to appeal to many buyers of stolen art. But a Caravaggio is a Caravaggio—or is it?

Following a recent burglary at the monastery’s chapel, there’s little left to steal, so Flavia di Stefano of Rome’s Art Theft Squad is particularly puzzled when she receives a tip that thieves plan to raid the building. What is there, except perhaps the Caravaggio, that professionals could covet? Even stranger is the sudden arrival in Italy of Mary Verney, an Englishwoman and thief whom Flavia and her art-expert fiance, Jonathan Argyll, have encountered before. She may be there as a tourist, but it’s unlikely. Is Mary after personal riches, or is her trip, and her possible involvement in a theft, inspired by more terrifying circumstances?

Jonathan also wonders about the intentions of Daniel Menzies, the “Rottweiler of Restoration,” who is restoring the supposed Caravaggio in the disused monastery chapel where even the candles in front of a nearby icon of the Virgin and Child, long venerated by the local population for its special protection of those who offered prayers, have been extinguished.

Something strange and threatening is occurring both inside and outside the monastery, and Jonathan and Flavia feel powerless when they fail either to stop a theft or a murder. As the two search for answers through the maze of monastic and police bureaucracy, they gradually reveal a surprise more shocking than even they had imagined.

Rome is ancient and full of secrets, some of which never should be revealed, and Iain Pears is at the peak of his powers in this exquisitely rendered crime novel in which the Roman setting plays as memorable a role as any of the players.

Iain Pears is a journalist and art historian who worked for Reuters for several years and spent time at Yale University completing his book The Discovery of Painting, which was published by Yale University Press in 1988. He now lives in Oxford. In addition to writing An Instance of the Fingerpost, he is the author of five previous art-world crime novels: The Raphael Affair, The Titian Committee, The Bernini Bust, The Last Judgement, and Giotto’s Hand.

EXTRAORDINARY PRAISE FOR

IAIN PEARS’S NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING CRIME NOVEL, AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST

“Successful literary thrillers in the mold of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose are the stuff of publishers’ dreams, and in Pears’s novel they may have found a near-perfect example of the genre.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Pears’s assured command of period history, language, lore, and attitudes is formidable.”—The Wall Street Journal

“An erudite and entertaining tour de force.”-People

“Ingenious, thoroughly satisfying, hard to put down—and fairly audacious. What mystery novel treats immaculate conception and resurrection as credible, if incidental, plot points? An Instance of the Fingerpost is polished entertainment.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer

AND FOR THE JONATHAN ARGYLL SERIES

“Pears masterfully juggles his plot elements … best of all is the moral ambiguity at the heart of the story. As in Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series, good and evil are inextricably blended, like the ingredients in a good risotto.” —Booklist

“Mr. Pears does some lovely brushwork on the minor characters who contribute to the subtle tones of this elegant mystery … but the real work of art here is the plot, a piece of structural engineering any artist would envy.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Deliciously literate series.”-Kirkus Reviews

“Art history, literary language, and wry humor realize another auspicious combination.”-Library Journal

“Well paced, witty, and full of details that speak to his training as an art historian.” —The San Diego Union-Tribune

Published by: Scribner, New York, NY.

Copyright 1996 by Iain Pears

ALSO BY IAIN PEARS

Giotto’s Hand The Last Judgement The Bernini Bust The Titian Committee The Raphael Affair

To Ruth

DEATH AND RESTORATION

Business meetings are more or less the same all over the world, and have been since the beginning of time. There is the man in charge; the man supposedly in charge; the man wanting to be in charge; their minions, their enemies and those waverers who float gently downstream, hoping things won’t get too choppy. And there is always a dispute, which serves the purpose of making half-felt antagonisms real. Sometimes these are of importance and justify the energy expended on them. But not often.

So it was one afternoon in September in a large but utilitarian room in a shambling, run-down set of buildings in that section of Rome loosely known as the Aventino. There were twenty people, all men of between thirty-five and seventy-five years old; fourteen items on the agenda, and two factions, each determined to sweep all before them and rout the forces of (on the one hand) dangerous and puerile innovation and (on the other) hidebound traditionalism irrelevant to the needs of the modern world. It was, the chairman thought as he took a deep breath, going to be a long afternoon. He only hoped that the two hours they had just spent praying together for God’s wisdom to infuse their collective decision would stop the imminent debate from getting too acrimonious.

But he doubted it, somehow. Much as he felt himself teetering on the brink of heresy in even considering the idea, he did sometimes wish the Lord could make his wishes just a bit plainer: then his fear might not be realized that he, Father Xavier Munster, thirty-ninth head of the Order of St John the Pietist, might also be the last. His heart sank as he saw the glitter of battle in the eyes of those souls nominally submissive to his total authority. Above all Father Jean, organizing his papers in front of him like so many divisions of tanks, waiting for the moment to advance. Determined to oppose, mindless of the problems he had to face. Although, in the circumstances, that was just as well. “Perhaps,” Father Xavier said with determination to the assembled collection of his order presently in Rome. “Perhaps we might begin?”’

Five hours later, it was at an end, and the shattered brothers staggered out. Ordinarily, there were aperitifs on the terrace after such a meeting; this time only a few people, those who had not become too involved in the unseemly brawling, turned up. The rest went to their cells (such they were called, although they were little different to the sort of rooms students occupy) to meditate, pray, or fume with rage.

“I’m very glad that’s over,” murmured one of the most youthful of the brothers, a tall, handsome man from Cameroon called Paul. It was selfless of him to say it so mildly; he had hoped that his own concern might have been dealt with. But, yet again, his little problem was too far down the list to be discussed.

The words were addressed to nobody in particular, and were heard only by Father Jean, an old man who had stationed himself next to the Pernod bottle at the table. He peered upwards in the general direction of Father Paul’s face—which was a good eighteen inches above his own—and nodded. He was exhausted; that sort of combat does use energy and sometimes even he was surprised and alarmed at the deep sources of hatred that Father Xavier’s efforts at reform had stirred up in his usually placid soul. He had not come on to the terrace to be social; unusually for him, he was there because he needed a drink.

In the past he had always refused to be sucked into such disputes and still could not quite believe his new role as leader of the opposition. It was not what he had wanted; not his ideal way of spending his declining years. He still thought of himself as a natural loyalist. So he had always been ever since he was plucked out of village school at the age of twelve by a priest who had spotted his qualities.

But not this time, although the vehemence unleashed by the contest between himself and Xavier appalled him. Even at the height of the doubts and anguish thrown up by the great Vatican Council, he remembered nothing which could compare with the sheer unpleasantness the meeting room had witnessed that afternoon. But there was nothing to be done about it: the soul of the body was at stake; of that he was absolutely sure. Xavier was a good man, no doubt; a courageous one, even. And many saints had been as ruthless and determined to follow their vision, despite all opposition, as he was. Look at St Bernard; look at St Ignatius. Neither were exactly known for their ability to see all sides of an argument. But this was not the Middle Ages, nor the seventeenth century. Other techniques were required. Patience, tact, persuasion. And none of them were Xavier’s speciality.

So Father Jean nodded sadly to himself. “Over? Only for the time being,” he said. “I fear we have not seen the last of this dispute.”

Father Paul arched his eyebrow. “What more is there to say? It’s settled, isn’t it? You got your way. Surely you should be happy.”

Paul could speak with little heat because he, almost alone of the brothers, had not taken sides. Indeed, he wasn’t entirely certain what the dispute was about. He understood the occasion, of course, but the underlying cause meant nothing to him. All he understood was that it wasted a lot of energy that, surely, could be better spent.

“It was only defeated by one vote,” Jean replied. “Only by one vote. Last year-what did he try to do then? I don’t remember —he was turned down by five votes. Which means this will be taken as an encouragement, rather than as a defeat. You just wait.”

Father Paul poured himself an orange juice and sipped thoughtfully. “Oh dear. I do wish I could go home. I hardly seem to be doing the Lord’s work here.”

“I know,” Father Jean said sympathetically, wondering whether a second Pernod would be permissible. “You must find us shocking, and you’re probably right. And I’m sorry we’ve put off discussing the business of your going home yet again. Next time, perhaps; when tempers have cooled, we might bring the subject up. I will do my best, if that’s any help.”

A few kilometres away, in the very centre of the city, a quite different, more worldly, organization was ploughing its quietly effective way through life. The main door (newly electrified at hideously unnecessary expense) swished to and fro as eager policemen walked purposefully in and out. In small, windowless rooms technicians and filing clerks pursued their careers with keen concentration and devotion to duty. Further up the building greater harmony reigned, as detectives in their offices read, telephoned and wrote in their determined pursuit of Italy’s stolen artistic heritage. And from the top floor, from the room which was frequently described in the more respectful press as the brain centre of Italy’s Art Theft Squad, came a low rumble which was disturbed only by the persistent buzzing of a large, fat bluebottle.

The efficient machine was on autopilot; the brain was off duty. It was a hot afternoon and General Taddeo Bottando was fast asleep.

Not that this mattered, normally. Bottando was handsomely into his sixties and even he was now ready to agree that youthful sprightliness was no longer one of his dominant characteristics. Experience more than made up for this loss, however. So what if he husbanded his resources now and then? His overall strategic grasp was as good as ever, and his organizational powers unfaded by the years. Everybody knew what they were meant to do, and they got on with the business of doing it, without any need for him to supervise them day and night. And if something happened when he was not around (so to speak) then one of his team, such as Flavia di Stefano, was fully able to deal with the situation.

Such had been the way in which he had described his role that very lunchtime, to a pair of senior civil servants who had taken him out to a fine, excessively fine, restaurant to make up. For reasons which he couldn’t quite understand, Bottando had suddenly become popular, after years of battling for money and continued existence. Now, perhaps due to a major success a few months back, everybody loved him, everybody had always loved him, and everyone had always been his secret supporter against the machinations of others. All those years, and Bottando had never noticed. He had all but purred with pleasure, and had permitted himself to wallow in complacency as he played a significant role in the destruction of a second, then a third bottle of good Chianti.

Perhaps he should have seen it coming, an old hand like himself. The bonhomie, the admiration, the friendliness. But the wine and the warmth lulled him into assurance. Deep down, he was a trusting man, despite years in the police force contending with crooks and—what was worse—superiors. For once, he permitted himself to think that everyone was on the same side; we are all colleagues. Perhaps I really am admired and appreciated for my efforts.

His mood was one of confident, generous urbanity by the time the most senior of his colleagues—a man he had transferred away from his command years ago in a different life in Milan—leant forward with an ingratiating smile and said: “Tell me, Taddeo, how do you see the department developing? In years to come. I want you to take the long view here, you see.”

And so he gave a peroration, about international cooperation and regional squads and all that sort of thing. About new computers and new techniques and new laws which would all make the business of retrieving stolen works of art that little bit easier.

“And yourself? How do you see yourself?”’

If he hadn’t been wary before, the alarms should have gone off now. All the signs were there; but he never for a moment even suspected the existence of the huge and omnivorous trap doors creaking open to swallow him up. He talked about teams and leadership and overseeing functions, talking the foreign language in which he had become fluent, if not entirely comfortable.

“Good, good. I’m so glad we are in agreement. That does make our task so very much easier.”

Finally, at long last, despite the heat and the drugging effects of the wine and food, a warning tickle activated itself at the base of his thick and powerful neck.

“You see,” the man said as Bottando mentally assumed a crouching posture but kept silent, “there are all these reorganizations. This new promotion structure.”

“Which ones? Have I missed something again?”’

A nervous chuckle. “Oh, dear me, no. It hasn’t been published yet. In fact, you’re the very first person to be told of it. We thought it best, as you may well be the first person to be affected.”

More silence, more caution and a raised eyebrow.

“It’s all structural, you see, and I’d like it known that I am not happy with it.”

Which means, of course, that he is. Probably his idea, in fact, Bottando thought.

“So many people, all crammed up with no promotion prospects. The demographic age bulge. What’s to be done with them? All over the government, the very best people are leaving. Why is this? Because they’ve come to a dead end, that’s why. And then there is Europe. We are entering a new age, Taddeo. We must be prepared. The time to start planning is now. Not when it is all too late. So it has been decided—by people other than myself—to introduce some, ah, changes.”

“What, ah, changes?”’

“Two things. Specifically, there is to be an intragovernmental liaison group to coordinate all aspects of policing. It will start with a particular area as a way of testing procedures and operations.”

Bottando nodded. He had heard all of this sort of thing before. Every six months some bright spark in a ministry decided to nail his promotion prospects to yet another piece of liaising. Never came to anything much.

“And the second, which will ultimately be linked with the first, is to sort out the relationship between your department with the new international art safety directive.”

“The what?”’

“A European affair, funded entirely from Brussels, but the minister has managed to establish that it will be headed by an Italian. You, in fact.”

“And sit around writing memoranda which no one will ever read.”

“That depends on yourself. Obviously you will encounter resistance. You would have resisted it fervently yourself. It will be your job to turn this initiative into something.”

“Does this mean lots of foreigners?”’ he asked dubiously.

They both shrugged. “It will be up to you to decide what it is you want to do. Then to get the budget to pay for the staff to do it. Naturally, the staffing structure will have to be balanced.”

“It does mean foreigners.”

“Yes.”

“And where will this fine example of Euro-nonsense be located?”’

“Ah, there now. Obviously, the most sensible place would be in Brussels. However …”

“In that case I’m not going,” Bottando began. “The rain, you know …”

“However,” the civil servant continued, “other factors come into operation here.”

“Such as?”’

“Such as the fact that money spent in Brussels benefits Belgium; money spent in Italy benefits us. And, of course, we are the greatest centre for art. And, come to think of it, for art theft. So we are lobbying hard for it to be located here.”

“And what about my department?”’

“You continue in charge, of course, but you will obviously have to delegate day-to-day operations, which will run in parallel, with some interchange of personnel.”

Bottando sat back in his chair, his good mood dissolving as the full implications dawned on him.

“What choice do I have about this?”’

“None. It is too important for personal preference. It is a matter of national honour. You accept, or someone else gets your job. And you will have to go to Brussels in a week to explain how you will run this organization. So you have a lot of work to do.”

Not knowing whether to be pleased or irritated, Bottando went back to his office to try and figure out all the subtleties and, as was his habit, ended up sleeping on it.

It was not the best time for an anonymous tip-off to come in, warning about an imminent raid to steal one of the city’s works of art.

Jonathan Argyll walked home across Rome at half past six in the evening, taking some, but not a great deal, of pleasure in the bustle of a city anxious to get home for its dinner. He was tired. It had been a long day, what with one thing and another. A lecture in the morning, which was becoming routine now that his stage fright had left him and he had gauged the low expectations of the audience, followed by two hours of sitting in the little broom cupboard officially called his office, fending off students in various levels of distress who came to waste his time. Could they be late on this? Could he photocopy that to spare them the trouble of actually sitting in a library themselves?

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