One of the pieces of advice often given to those looking to write their first novel is “write what you know”. Surgeon, public servant and art lover Michael Levitt has taken this advice to heart in his first novel The Gallerist. The Gallerist features a former doctor turned art gallery owner and a sometimes dangerous search to determine the provenance of an intriguing piece of art.
After the death of his long-time partner, former surgeon Mark Lewis gave up his career to open and run a small art gallery in Perth with his daughter Olivia. The gallery has a reputation for honesty and Lewis, with the help of his mentor, is respected in the local community for his knowledge of the art that he deals in. The plot kicks off when a local woman brings in a painting that was given to her sister Katy by one of the other students when she was in a school for children with disability. The back of the painting is inscribed to Katy by Charlie, but Mark immediately suspects it is the work of Australian of the Year nominee James Devlin. Only the work predates Devlin’s creative output by ten years and does not contain his distinctive signature. The story is then Mark’s quest to find out who Charlie was and determine the provenance of the work, although doing so bringing him into the crosshairs of the powerful Devlin who has secrets that he does not want exposed.
The Gallerist is built around an intriguing mystery and is full of fascinating detail about the Australian art scene and how it works. Levitt explores not only issues of the value of art and its provenance, issues of fraud that have sometimes plagued the Australian art collecting world but also the way the media handles these issues and the potential impact then on the value of the works affected. He does this not in a didactic way, but naturally through the characters and developing plot. Around the investigation itself is a compassionately observed developing relationship between the still grieving Lewis and Linda, a woman he meets during his investigations who comes on board to help him.
The Gallerist could be considered a form of amateur procedural as Lewis and his friends slowly piece together the evidence to build the story of the mystery painting. In some ways, Lewis can sometimes seem a little too idealistic, but actually his approach is always to value to the art and while it is not strictly about money he tries to ensure that the true value of great works is not impacted by scandal, even when he is at the centre of that scandal. And while Devlin is effectively the villain of the piece he is also portrayed with some nuance.
In a world of fast paced thrillers and disposable serial killer narratives, The Gallerist comes across as a bit of a breath of fresh air. A well-paced, considered and mainly low key crime novel using a beguiling mystery to shed a light on a world of which some readers may be vaguely familiar but most have no deep knowledge.
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