Friday, 23 July 1999

Iain Pears: TheTitian Committee (1991)

Edition: Gollancz, 1991
Review number: 296

The second of Pears' Jonathan Argyll art world detective novels is set in Venice. Like other novels by Pears, it re-interprets some history to fit a detective story around it. In this case, the plot is based round an event in the life of the painter Titian, together with the investigations into his life and works by a committee of academics. The idea is that, as was done for that other prolific artist Rembrandt, they would examine every work supposed to be a possible Titian, and give the last word as to authenticity, producing a definitive catalogue marking out his real work from the 'attributed to', 'after' or 'from the school of' uncertainties.

When one of the committee, the pushy Mary Masterson, is murdered, the Italian police's art crime bureau sends Jonathan's friend Flavia to help in the investigation, much to the disgust of the local police. She begins to feel that their facile dismissal of the death as the result of a robbery gone wrong just won't work, and then another committee member dies (the police theory this time being that he accidentally fell into a canal and was drowned).

Masterson had become interested in a particular work studied by the committee, an altarpiece in Padua depicting St Anthony, painted when, as a young man, Titian had left Venice for a while following the death of a friend. The interesting thing about this altarpiece is that one panel had been repainted after the original composition was deemed improper by the church that had commissioned it. Masterson had been particularly interested in a supposed Titian that could have been a sketch for the abandoned panel, which the committee had deemed inauthentic just before she had joined it. Argyll becomes interested in a possible connection between this interest and her death.

I borrowed this book from my local library, and the copy illustrates one of the more annoying aspects of reading a book that has been read by others. Masterson's age is mentioned several times in the novel, and there is a misprint which means that it is sometimes printed as 38 and sometimes as 58. Now, it is only given as 58 once, the first time it occurs, so it is fairly clear that 5 is a mistake for 3, and that 38 is what Pears intended. However, someone has gone through the entire book, correcting every occurrence of 38 to 58, and writing sarcastic comments in the margins. Writing on a book that doesn't belong to you is bad enough, but being wrong as well is very irritating.

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