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The Collection (The DeWitt Agency Files) (Volume 1) Paperback – November 9, 2016
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"The Collection is a breezy read in the way the very early Leslie Charteris' Saint novels were breezy: entertaining with an underlining of grit below the surface... I'm certainly looking forward to more adventures in this budding series." -- CriminalElement.com
From the Author
The DeWitt Agency Files series will follow Matt Friedrich, our fairly tarnished hero, as he investigates (and sometimes commits) art-related crimes. Trafficking in stolen art and antiquities is the fourth-largest transnational crime by value -- that's a lot of opportunity for Matt to get himself into more trouble.
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Matt, the hero, is an interesting guy who has had some mostly self-imposed problems. He seems to have matured enough to want to avoid repeating his worst mistakes when he pushed the limits in his art dealings. Although he seems to know right and wrong, he sometimes has trouble separating the two. Now he's just barely making a living and wants to return to a time when he did better than just getting by. In an effort to correct his situation, he reconnects with an old acquaintance, Allyson DeWitt. When offered work, he jumps at the chance without knowing what he's in for. Soon he's in Italy and deep in a scheme to locate some vanished art for a mysterious shadowed client. Matt, his “partner” Carson ( a former police officer) and their boss Allyson take you on this exciting journey.
Charnes mastery of storytelling (as evident in his earlier two books) brings to life the world in which many of the questionable ultra-wealthy launder millions of dollars and certain art dealers who help them, knowingly or not. The novel brings you close to the action. One of the best things about this book is how Matt and Carson take you into the cafes, cathedrals and bodegas of Europe. I felt as though I had actually traveled with them on this exciting adventure. This is a home run for Charnes!
Being his Goodreads friend, I try to keep abreast of Lance's book reviews, so I know firsthand how well read he is in the whole area of the contemporary fine arts market, and particularly of its increasingly seedy underbelly. (In real life, art by big-name artists can command staggering prices, and in the last 15-20 years it's come to be a major commodity in the world of big-time international money laundering and shady commercial exchanges where cash transfers come too easily to the attention of authorities. (And a lot of art that's traded this way may be stolen, or forged.) Rich collectors with an enthusiasm for art aren't the only players any more; we're dealing with crime syndicates, corrupt and despotic governments and their officials, and billionaires looking for ways to cheat the tax authorities, and violence and murder may be aspects of normal business operations for some of these people. Lance sets this novel in that milieu, and he and his protagonist Matt Friedrich know it like the back of their hand. The author is also well-traveled; he sets his tale mostly in Europe, and principally Milan, and brings the locale to life with an assurance and level of detail which suggests he's actually been there, or researched it a LOT online.
This is crime fiction more than traditional mystery; and as in his debut novel, Lance uses the knowledge of skulduggery, weapons, and high-technology snooping gained as a military intelligence officer to good advantage. The plotting is taut (first-person, present-tense narration is used for maximum immediacy) and the pace brisk, with a steady dose of dangerous situations and life-threatening tension. Matt's crafty scheming sometimes takes the reader by surprise, and he's sometime majorly taken for surprise himself, along with the reader. Action scenes aren't frequent, but you never know when they could erupt, and when they do they're well depicted. I've used the term "thriller" for this book, and that's one I seldom use; I don't seek out books that bill themselves that way, because I think the plotting is usually so cliched and stereotyped that it fails to thrill. This one doesn't fail. I've also used the term "gritty." As described above, the moral world of this novel is a dark one where people are generally guided by the most selfish and cynical of motives, where the law is typically powerless to do much, and where innocent people are hurt as a by-product of what some of the characters routinely do. The DeWitt so-called "Agency" is a morally ambiguous enterprise that works for the highest bidder, and our narrator is an ex-con who was once involved in crooked art deals, and is now so crushed under a mountain of legal debts that he's willing to violate his parole by working for said agency if it gives him a shot at paying it down.
And yet this is a surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly, given the moral vision that animates the author's earlier novel) moral work of fiction, with a main character who's learned something about life and ethics from his time in prison, and who wants to become a human being that he can look in the mirror and respect. He's going to encounter challenges and decisions here that will put that resolve to the test. Both Matt and Carson (the female operative he's paired with --who provides the team's muscles and fighting skill when it's needed) are intensely vital, round, realistic characters with a credible pattern of interactions that doesn't stay static, but develops believably. Unlike some writers of this type of fiction, Lance understands that characters you care about are the only thing that can truly provide it with its heart, and he gives character development and relationships their due. There's a lot that I can't tell you because I'm determined to avoid spoilers; but I can say that this is where the book really earns its stars. (The principal supporting characters are masterfully drawn as well.)
You don't have to be familiar with the world of the contemporary art market to enjoy this book (I'm not, at all); the author explains everything you have to know, and he does it easily and smoothly, in small doses with no info-dumps. None of the discussion is detailed enough to be boring. He uses enough physical description to let you visualize scenes, but not, IMO, too much; the same with technological exposition. (At one point, I didn't really understand what one of the villains was trying to gain by his conduct; but the narrative drive carried me through without asking questions.) Matt's very sensible to feminine charms (he hasn't been out of prison very long), but there's no sex here, and actually some modeling of responsible sexual behavior, which I found quite refreshing. Violence here isn't any more frequent or graphic than it needs to be. As for bad language, not all of the characters swear, which is more realistic than some writers admit; but (also realistically) some do, including Matt, though he's more restrained than some. Carson and one of the villains have the worst mouths (including the f-word as regular vocabulary), the latter is a lowlife and sounds like it, while Carson is an ex-cop who's speaking style tends to be shaped by cop culture. (Lance has explained in a personal message that this kind of language is common in that circle --I'd guess because of affinities to military culture, from which a fair number of cops are actually recruited.) I never felt that he was trying to mainstream that kind of thing, nor push the envelope with it.
If you're any kind of fan of crime fiction thrillers in a contemporary setting, and my review intrigues you rather than turning you away, I'd say this is definitely worth your checking out. I'm certainly going to be following the series; and I'm now even more anxious to read the author's other novel South, sooner rather than later!