Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC. Published 11th January 2018.
The Black Painting by Neil Olsen
Opening sentence: “Last night she dreamed of the house on Owl’s Point.”
Alfred Arthur Morse is an art dealer and was the owner of a mysterious and frightening Francisco Goya self-portrait, so frightening that many people believed the painting to be haunted, cursing anyone who looked directly at it. Fifteen years ago this painting was stolen and the repercussions – who really stole it? Is there a curse? – are still affecting Alfred’s family today.
Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828) did create a disturbing series, known as the Black Paintings. He painted them directly onto the walls of his house and they were later transferred to canvas. Here are examples of two of his Black Paintings, on the left, Saturn Devouring his Son (1819-1823) and Women Laughing (1819-1823):
Highly evocative and creepy, it’s easy to see how they inspired Neil Olsen to create a story around a possible demon living in one of them. The haunted self-portrait of the novel is fictional, but sits perfectly within these paintings. However, looking at them verses the cover of the book, I think the publishers went with too jolly a design that doesn’t completely represent the artist this story is inspired by, or the sinister Gothic atmosphere that the book is trying to portray. Perhaps they didn’t want to scare away potential readers…
Anyway, back to the plot. Alfred (who I must point out is old-money wealthy and not a particularly nice man) is in the process of calling his grandchildren (Teresa, one of our narrators – she suffers migraines and seizures, Audrey, who is bold, brassy and conniving, her reclusive brother James, studying to be a doctor and Kenny, the big-shot lawyer) to his stately home in Owl’s Point to issue them with caveats in order to secure their inheritance. However, somewhat ironically, Teresa and Audrey arrive only to find him dead already, not only that: “‘You saw his face,’ Teresa said pointedly. The other woman was quiet for a moment. ‘Yes’ ‘Something scared him to death.'” So now the family have to deal with the death of their patriarch and their own family secrets – can everything be traced back to the missing painting?
Our second narrator is Dave, a private investigator, who is hired by Alfred’s son Philip (after Alfred’s death) to track down the painting thief once and for all and bring closure to the family. Having the dual narrators, one from inside the family and an outsider, really does help to give a nice balance to the plot.
In theory, this book is made up of elements that appeal to me (hence why I wanted to read it) – a murder mystery with a touch of a real life figure thrown in – so I thought I’d really enjoy it. But sadly, I didn’t. The artistic angle, learning about the Black Paintings, yes, I liked that, and there was a clever little narrative that struck a satisfying balance between the supernatural and a crime thriller. Saying that though, the pace was a little slow and linear in parts, with reveals you could see coming, so there were no great surprises when the story arrived at its conclusion. For me, none of the characters were overtly likable and all seemed a bit shallow, their back-stories were hinted at, but not fleshed out, so it was tricky to care about them. Overall, the writing style lacked finesse, so I just wasn’t fully engaged in the story, which was a shame, as I really did want to like this book more!