I am a total sucker for mysteries set in the art world, so I was already inclined to love this book even before I was seduced by, first, the unusual-for-the-art-world LA/West Coast setting, then by Maria Hummel’s gorgeous prose.
Still Lives follows Maggie Richter, one-time investigative journalist turned PR flack for the prestigious Rocque Museum. She’s dreading their upcoming exhibit by Kim Lord, a painter known for her provocative self-portraits, featuring the artist posing as various female murder victims through American history. The concept has Maggie feeling incredibly queasy, and she’s not the only one at the Rocque to feel that way, tho she’s probably the only one to dread Kim’s show for the entirely personal reason of her ex-boyfriend Greg having very quickly moved on from their relationship to take up with Kim instead.
When Kim is a no-show to her own opening, Maggie is relieved at having avoided another awkward encounter with her and Greg both. But after Kim’s phone and a bloody cloth are found in places that not only suggest foul play but also incriminate Greg in her disappearance, Maggie is drawn into investigating what happened to the missing artist, not only as part of her work at the art museum, but also because of her unresolved feelings for Greg. Helped and hindered in turn by her friends and co-workers, Maggie must navigate not only rarefied art circles, but also her own uncomfortable relationships with LA and her past and the people and feelings she can’t seem to leave behind.
This was an absorbing study not only of the contemporary art scene but also the interior life of a woman who seemingly has it all but whose life and sanity begin to unravel in the face of violence and death. Maggie’s investigations take on a hallucinatory quality the further she takes them, in large part due to her conflicting sense of solidarity, if not outright identification, with a woman she can’t help viewing as a rival. The only thing I didn’t really care for in this novel was Ray’s advice towards the end. While I can understand not wanting to have your identity tied to a murderer, I was taken aback at the notion that privacy should be prioritized over justice. It ultimately didn’t matter in this instance, but I found it disconcerting to read the assertion that notoriety is too high a price to pay to make sure that a criminal doesn’t hurt more innocent people.
I read SL to prep for the upcoming release of its companion novel, Lesson In Red (that review will go live at CriminalElement.com in the upcoming weeks,) and would definitely recommend reading this first. As well, both covers by Jaya Miceli are, IMO, gorgeous works of art on their own, fitting given the contents.
Still Lives by Maria Hummel was published June 5 2018 by Counterpoint Press and is available from all good booksellers, including