Chasing After a Lost Masterpiece
(A Book Review of Ken Follett’s The Modigliani Scandal)
The Modigliani Scandal is a lighthearted early caper from internationally renowned master thriller Ken Follett.
The plot concerns Dee Sleign, an art historian on the hunt on her next thesis subject; Charles Lampeth, a genteel, cunning gallery owner who hires private detective Dunsford Lipsey; and Julian Black, a desperate man mired in debt setting up his own art establishment. All these characters converge on track of a “lost masterpiece” and the instant fame and fortune that came with it.
Other minor characters are: Peter Usher, a young artist who plans a revenge on the art establishment who exploits the rights of young painters; Samantha Winacre, an actress making her mark on show business but in the midst of it all quits; and a host of fleeting others which the reader can easily discern his/her purpose in the scheme of things.
It’s a wild goose chase from London to the provincial outskirts of Italy where each will be upon the others’ throat in search of a lost painting by an early 20th century painter named Modigliani whose brief experiment with drugs while composing his paintings became popular after his death. That in a nutshell is the novel’s central conflict.
The novel explores the modern world of art. How upcoming artists struggle to make ends meet and how the greedy gallery owners exploit them (or any work of art for that matter), and make more money off them. It also takes a momentary glimpse at the London “high society” lifestyle; the lives they try to live and the superficiality of it all.
Divided in four parts, wherein each chapter is titled after the procedure of composing/making a painting, the elements here at play is in every likeness to the banal thriller-suspense novels of the 70’s where complications build up and in the end deliver the final master stroke.
Much of Follett’s training as a journalist is quite evinced here as his early prose style aims for brisk action to move and develop the story forward rather than for mood or theme — the author himself professes in the Introduction of the reissued edition of the book that he failed on what he set out this novel to be: “the subordination of individual choices to forces beyond which we can’t and will have no control”. The result: the readers feels hurried developing little sympathy nor empathy or what else to its characters.
This is my first time reading Follett and I suggest that this novel is not a good starting point to any casual reader of his fiction. It’s just a deliberate choice on my part as I’m more interested (or rather a methodical reader at that!) on Follett’s evolution and transformation as a thriller writer.
The Modigliani Scandal is a good read that might suit anyone, especially to those who are a fans of Ken Follett’s novels who want to delve in his early writings. It’s a fairly decent dose of your staple thriller novel sprinkled with light suspense, with a predictable ending twist and nothing more.
Published by Signet
(Mass Market Paperback, 1985 Signet Edition)
Read in: July 2009