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The Art of Murder by Jose Carlos Somoza
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The Art of Murder (original 2001; edition 2005)

by Jose Carlos Somoza

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167671,264 (3.63)14
Member:Tifi
Title:The Art of Murder
Authors:Jose Carlos Somoza
Info:Abacus (2005), Edition: New edition, Paperback, 480 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***
Tags:Read, Netherlands, Spain, Austria, UK

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The Art of Murder by José Carlos Somoza (2001)

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A mystery and murder novel set in a very near future when art has taken a step further and uses human bodies as the canvas; some artists take this much further and do not even consider the canvas a human with feelings, they are an art product that is shipped as freight, packaged in a box and mis-treated while primed and stretched and given drugs to affect bodily functions to allow them to pose for eight hours or so and then painted and displayed. This sounds horrific in itself without a murder and Jose Carlos Somoza manages to get across why a young woman would want to be a canvas and how this became a career option of choice; you get inside the head of the people who are painted much more than you are inside the head of the artists, who are mysterious and unfathomable.
The novel had a bit of a slow bit in the middle, where I wondered where it was going, but generally was well paced and interesting, as a mystery and the author creates a visually stunning novel.
Feminism is discussed, as most of the people painted are young women and many artists are male and there are few older people who are painted by artists. The novel takes the idea further by introducing a natural version of hyperdramatic art, where owners talk to the people who are posing for them when they have finished work for the day. The hyperdramatic furniture really tested my imagination, wobbly tables sat on the bodies of four young people of slightly different heights was funny in a way, but chairs, where rich people sat on chairs that were formed from other people showed the obscenity of the imagined genre. ( )
  Tifi | Feb 21, 2013 |
It is a well-worn axiom that the average reader reads a mystery precisely because it does not make him think much beyond solving the puzzle, and then only if he wishes to. If he merely wants a bit of relaxation, some reassurance that the world ultimately does solve its problems and that the bad guys get their comeuppance, well, then, even the most nourishing of mysteries will usually give the reader that satisfaction. In the average mystery, no truly innocent person ever goes to jail permanently; no murder is left unavenged; justice is always done, even if it must sometimes be done by unorthodox methods.

It is a most unusual mystery that makes one think hard about questions of ethics, or that will haunt the reader weeks after she finishes reading the book (unless the haunting consists of nightmares of a serial killer’s gruesome methods). Rarely is one left to contemplate the intersection of art and commerce, the human degradation inherent in some forms of labor, and whether art can ever be more valuable than a human life. If you had a choice between saving all the art contained in the Louvre or saving the life of a single human being, which would you choose? Would your decision change if that human being volunteered to die to save the art? Would your decision change if the death itself were a form of art?

In The Art of Murder, Jose Carlos Somoza posits a new type of art he calls hyperdramatism: art in which actual human beings are the artworks. The novel opens with the description of one such work of art:

"The teenage girl stands naked on the plinth. Her smooth stomach and the dark curve of her navel are at eye level. She is looking down with her head tilted to one side, one hand shielding her pubis, the other on her hip. Her knees are together and slightly bent. She is painted in natural sienna and ochre. Shading in burnt sienna emphasizes her breasts and moulds her inner thighs and her little slit. We should not say ‘slit’ because this is a work of art we are talking about, but when we see her, that is what we think. A tiny vertical slit, stripped of all hair. We walk round the plinth and observe the figure from the back. The tanned buttocks reflect patches of light. If we step away, her anatomy acquires a more innocent look. Her hair is strewn with small white flowers. More flowers surround her feet – a pool of milk. Even at this distance we can still pick up the strange scent she gives off, like the smell of wood after rain. Next to the security rope is a little stand with the title in three languages: Deflowering."

This type of art makes extraordinary demands on the “canvas.” The humans who become artworks are drugged to an extraordinary degree, so that their bodily functions are almost completely controlled: sweat, saliva, menstruation and other secretions are made to virtually disappear with certain medications, while other medications control the pain involved in holding awkward poses for six to eight hours at a time with almost no movement (even breathing and blinking slows almost to a stop due to meditation techniques). In order to achieve the effects the artist seeks, the artist must “prime” and “paint” the canvas, which work involves psychological as well as physical shaping, often to an extreme degree to obtain exactly the right expression on the model’s face.

The models are treated precisely as objects. Clara, a primed canvas, is proud of her orange-tinged yellow labels, dangling from her neck, her right wrist and her right ankle, because they mean she has been contracted by the Van Tysch Foundation, the home of the foremost hyperdramatic artist of the time. She is transported as a fragile freight item when moved from one country to the next, barely even spoken to. She takes this as a matter of course; she is material, no longer precisely human. As one of those who prepares her for the artist informs her, “Being a masterpiece has something . . . inhuman about it. … Art uses us, my child, it uses us in order to exist, but it’s like an alien being. That’s what you’ve got to think: you’re not human when you are a painting. Think of yourself as an insect. … When you discover what the insect is thinking … then you’ll be a great work of art.”

But if the artist and the canvas do their work well, a hyperdramatic artwork can become worth millions or even billions of dollars, and the artwork and the artist both can become unbelievably wealthy. Canvases live pampered, if lonely, lives in their off hours, able to buy themselves every luxury imaginable, the most beautiful clothes, the most elegant jewels. They are protected from mistreatment by their owners – sexual or otherwise – because only the artwork, not the human, is purchased, to the extent that distinction can be made. When the canvases retire – most quite young, if they have been masterpieces, for the demand is mostly for teenage canvases – they retire for good.

As one might expect, this sort of art has its critics. Protest groups object to the treatment of humans as canvases, and liken their condition to slavery (despite their huge paychecks). Most of these groups do not even know of the illegal trade in humans as objects and furniture; imagine using a human as a chair, a lamp or as ashtray. Nor do they know, save perhaps in their imaginations, of the use of humans in more bloody artistic endeavors, something akin to what we would call snuff films, but which have achieved some degree of underground and growing respectability in the world Somoza posits.

The story begins when one of Van Tysch’s masterpieces is abducted and murdered. It’s an almost impossible crime, because the security surrounding these highly valuable and well-insured artworks seems to be impregnable. But in a world where disguise has reached a level of incredible artistic verisimilitude (portraits use real humans whose faces are covered with cerublastyne, an infinitely moldable substance), it is almost impossible to be sure anyone is who she seems to be. Lothar Bosch and April Wood, employees of the Van Tysch Foundation, must determine who committed the crime. It was grisly and strange: the 14-year-old girl who had modeled Deflowering was killed with a canvas cutter after being forced to read several paragraphs of art theory onto a tape recording.

And it does not seem like it will be the only crime of its type; this looks likely to be the work of a serial murderer. This is a problem especially because Van Tysch’s greatest work ever, an exhibition based on the works of Rembrandt, is due to open very soon. Van Tysch refuses to delay the opening, and despite the very tightest of security measures, it seems impossible to ensure the safety of all the canvases. Somoza increases the tension of the chase with great skill, causing us to worry about the lives of multiple characters and ultimately bringing everything to a horrifying close that will stop your breath in disbelief.

But for me the real value of this book is that Somoza is not content merely to have us follow the investigation of the crime. He spends much of his book showing us objects and canvases and their owners, talking about art theory, and, in particular, showing us how Clara is prepared to be the perfect canvas for one of the Rembrandt pieces. One becomes queasy at the ethics of preparing this human to look sufficiently frightened in the manner the artist chooses, but Clara not only understands, she approves – and encourages those “working” her to take things even further. The idea of using human beings as chairs does not lessen with repetition, but increases. The posing of naked thirteen-year-olds as artworks never starts to feel right, even if one has become able to appreciate the art of Balthus or is comfortable viewing Magritte’s “The Rape.” Even without the murder mystery, then, this book would be fascinating for the premise of hyperdramatic art.

Long after you have survived the shock of this book’s denouement, you will still be reeling from the shock of the challenges Somoza poses to your conceptions of the relationship between humans and art. Everything from fashion modeling to photography to the price of the latest Impressionist masterpiece at auction will have a different patina in the shadow cast by The Art of Murder. This is mystery writing at its very finest. ( )
  TerryWeyna | Jun 11, 2009 |
The Art of Murder is Somoza's latest murder mystery and I couldn't wait to read it. When I did so, I wasn't disappointed. The murders this time are set in the art world of the near-future. A time when models are canvasses - painted and sold or hired out to the highest bidder. Never happy with a straightforward whodunnit, Somoza has as much to say about art as he does about murder. His are books that sail high above the 'murder-mystery' genre and lodge themselves firmly in the 'literature' category. Somoza is a writer who deserves to be much better-known than he is and I, for one, await his next work impatiently.

A quick word, too, in praise of Nick Caistor, who translated The Art of Murder from the original Spanish. IMO not nearly enough credit is given to translators. Translating a work like this and preserving its unique feel and language can't be easy - so hats off to Nick. ( )
1 vote Booksloth | Aug 4, 2008 |
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Le beau n'est que le commencement du terrible.
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Pour Lázaro Somoza
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0349118833, Paperback)

Welcome to an art scene where realism has reached a new level, where each painting is literally alive, where the model is the canvas. And for the gorgeous men and women lining up for the privilege—to be painted and posed, bought and rented by collectors—there is one artist to whom they are all drawn: the Dutch master, Bruno van Tysch. A young female model is brutally murdered, and the detectives assigned to the case may have little interest in modern art, but they’re going to have to acquire an appreciation quickly. Van Tysch is about to launch a major exhibition in Amsterdam—the imitation of 13 of Rembrandt’s masterpieces—and rumors are that the killer is about to strike again.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:59:02 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

In 2006, the most avante-garde art movement uses living people as artwork. Many beautiful young men and women long to become a 'canvas' - especially if they can be painted by Bruno Van Tysch. But there is a darker side to this art movement, where the 'artworks' become the subjects of snuff movies.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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