Thursday, November 30, 2023

Real Rembrandt Art Theft in a New Detective Yarn: An Interview by Janet Stilson With Larry Maness, Author of ‘The Perfect Crime’

There’s a splendid building in the heart of Boston that’s haunted by a tragic loss. The elegant Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is home to a collection of more than 7,500 pieces of precious art. If you follow art news or events around Boston, then you may recall the burglary that took place there in 1990, which has never been solved. The 13 stolen works of art, 11 of which are paintings, have a value of $500 million and include works by Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer. Empty frames, where stolen paintings once hung, appear like ghosts on the walls.

This provided lots of creative fodder for the writer Larry Maness, who based his recently released mystery novel, The Perfect Crime: Unmasking the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist, on the theft. The captivating tale blends together actual known facts about the Gardner heist, various suspicions, and dark deeds that are purely imagined. Maness seems to have the mental abilities of a master criminal or conspiracy theorist — keeping his readers guessing about where the art might be located and who’s behind the crime until the end.

The Perfect Crime: Unmasking the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist features a fictional detective named Theo Perdoux, who’s a former Boston cop. This is the second time Perdoux has shown up in a Maness novel. The first book in the series, The Last Perdoux, is equally as engrossing and delves into another real mystery: the disappearance of masterpieces stolen by Nazis during World War II.

After reading both books, I had to wonder what parts of the Perdoux mysteries are real, and what parts Maness made up. So I got in touch with him. In the following interview, he supplies some answers and discusses other sources of inspiration, including travels through Italy, where both books are largely set. He also drops a clue about what real-life mystery could be the basis of the next Perdoux novel that he writes.

Why did you decide to center your most recent book on the Gardner art heist? There has to be a lot of mysteries out there worthy of your attention.

“Why has no one claimed the $10 million reward offered by the Gardner Museum for the return of the stolen items?” That question prompted me to consider possibilities for a novel. What really did the robbers want? If not a hefty reward, did a collector want specific masterpieces for his private collection? Or, as some suggest, were the stolen pieces to be used as a bargaining chip to get a master criminal out of prison? My novel explores these options. In the end, it also explains why the reward has never been claimed.

Can you give me some examples of what you included in the novel that’s actually known about the Gardner robbery and what you imagined? For example, was there someone who came to the museum posing as a well-known violin craftsman who was “casing” the artworks that were eventually stolen? Were any of the museum guards suspect?

To answer your last question first, yes, Gardner Museum guards were considered suspects. They did break protocol and let the robbers into the museum. Both guards claimed their innocence. No charges were ever brought.

Once inside, the two robbers dressed as Boston policemen and cut Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer’s The Concert from their frames. They collected nine other [paintings] before leaving the museum never to be seen again.

In my novel, The Perfect Crime, I build on the fact that the stolen items have never been found and that the thieves have never been caught. To construct my plot, I created a character who comes to the museum with the stated purpose of repairing the famous Cavelli guitar. His real purpose is far different and leads to the robbery.

What happens to the artwork after the robbery is a major theme of my novel. It is that theme that takes the reader to Rome where most of the novel takes place.

Did you receive any push-back from the museum, or any reaction from it at all, as you were writing or after the book was published?

Larry Maness at work, and the Gardner Museum’s courtyard. Photo Sources: Larry Maness and (for the courtyard) Jen Shishmanian on Unsplash

In your first novel in the series, The Last Perdoux, you explore a mystery that involves art stolen by the Nazis in World War II. Was there a certain moment in time when you had an ah-ha moment, realizing that it was fertile ground to explore in a book — and fertile ground for a book series that uses stolen art as a binding theme?

What first captured my attention was how easily a man’s life can be upended. Stolen artwork was an added element.

The idea for creating Theo Perdoux, a man with a fascinating past he knew nothing about since he had been adopted, came from a true story I read about in a newspaper. It seems a middle-aged man from Boston was located by a Spanish attorney with news that his biological mother had recently died in Barcelona. She left him her art collection in her will. The news overwhelmed this man and upended his life in various ways. Most of those ways were not pleasant.

In The Last Perdoux, I explore how a life can be upended when one learns that he comes from a famous Paris art collecting family whose collection was stolen by the Nazis during World War II. Theo’s mother spent her life hunting for the family’s stolen artwork. Her will demands that Theo take up the cause as the last Perdoux.

Complexities in the novel are achieved by Theo’s need to find his family’s stolen collection intertwined with his need to find out more about his biological family. As with the man I read about in the newspaper, what Theo learns is not always pleasant. For example, what was his mother’s shame that forced her to give Theo away? Who was Theo’s father? Was he still alive? Theo digs deep into his past to learn those answers.

Is there art stolen by the Nazis that still has yet to be recovered?

The Nazis plundered thousands of pieces of art. Heirs to many of those collections are even now trying to reclaim from museums and private collections what was stolen. Proving ownership is not easy. The process can take years.

What complicates the issue is that museums and private collectors often believe that their purchases were legitimate. In other words, they didn’t believe they were buying stolen merchandise. As a consequence, they are reluctant to give the pieces back. Enter the courts.

One of the aspects of both books that I love are its locations. The majority of the action in both books takes place in various parts of Italy. Can you tell me a little about your travels there, and the creative “seeds” it planted in your mind?

My first trip to Rome was for the production of one of my plays. I stayed for six months, living in an apartment overlooking the Spanish Steps. Years later, my wife and I rented a house in a small hilltop village for four months in Liguria, an area between Nice and Genoa. Fewer than 400 people lived in the village. A Catholic church sat at one end, a small market at the other. In the middle was a simple café. It was the perfect, remote location to use as the setting for The Last Perdoux.

A few years later, we rented a house back in Rome for several months. During that trip, the idea of The Perfect Crime came to me. On one corner not far from our house near the Campo di Fiori was the small shop of a famous violin maker. That shop and its proprietor form the basis for Aldo Conti, the violin maker in The Perfect Crime.

For readers who’ve never been to Italy, I try to provide a sense of what a wonderful country it is. For those who have been, I hope the locations I use in my plots resonate.

There’s an arch nemesis in both books — a mysterious Nazi whose whereabouts is largely unknown, except for the unexpected moments when he surfaces. And the man, Wilhelm Barr, is also the protagonist’s father. Is he based on any historical figures in particular?

Not specifically, Wilhelm Barr is an amalgam, a mixture of characteristics from various figures. I don’t read a lot of fiction. Most of my reading is biography and history. Researching The Perfect Crime, I read several books on Nazi Germany. Barr’s creation was no doubt influenced by that reading, but he isn’t based on one specific historical figure.

Did you base the character traits of the detective Theo Perdoux on any people in particular?

Theo is pure fiction. I wanted him to have characteristics that readers admire and expect in protagonists. As a consequence, Theo is intelligent, inquisitive, tough enough to survive, and determined. He is divorced. His business partner in Sala Ponte, a combination art gallery and art reclamation service, is Gina Ponte, a happily married lesbian.

In “The Perfect Crime” one of the characters is named Marianna. Immediately, I was struck by how closely that resembles your wife’s name, Marianne. Do you often pick names of people you know as a way of delving more deeply into the characters you write?

I did model Marianna on my wife, Marianne. She has appeared in all of my novels, not always identified by name. Creating believable characters is the key to a successful novel. Painters rely on models; writers do as well.

As far as selecting names, I don’t often use names of people I know. I once made the exception and used the names of a brother and sister who ran the coffee shop near me in Cambridge. They were delighted and gave me free coffee for a week.

Have you pinpointed the next mystery that you want Theo Perdoux to solve?

I am researching now an idea involving Thomas Jefferson. All of my six previous novels have had some connection to an historical event. Jefferson’s life is full of historical events. In addition, he was an avid collector.

Whether or not there is a novel in any of my research, it’s too soon to tell. If not, I’ll move on to something else. I have a folder full of ideas.

Larry Maness is the author of two books of plays and six novels (the last of which was published in 2023). 3 Plays was introduced by Pulitzer prize-winner, William Inge. His plays War Rabbit and Bailey both premiered in New York City at The American Theatre of Actors. His first novel, Nantucket Revenge, is called “The best beach read since Jaws” according to Florida Crime Writers author Steve Glassman. His second novel, A Once Perfect Place, is included in the Literature of Social Change collection at Duke University. Strangler, his third novel featuring Private Investigator Jake Eaton, is a Detective Book Club selection. The Voice of God, his fourth novel, is called by Rosemary Herbert, author of The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing, “an assured production that snares the reader from start to finish.”  And, of course, there are the two novels featured in the interview above. Maness lives on the south shore of Massachusetts with his wife, Marianne, known as “The Cookie Lady” in some parts of the world.

Janet Stilson writes sci-fi fiction that's shot through with suspense. Her novel about the future of media and mind control, The Juice, received rave reviews, and is based on her work as a journalist. Janet is the winner of the Writers’ Lab for Women competition,sponsored by Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman.


This interview was originally posted on Medium by Janet Stilson. Reprinted with permission. 

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