Stealing Mona Lisa: A Mystery

  • Carson Morton
  • Minotaur
  • 352 pp.

This entertaining caper involving stolen art offers great end-of-summer beach reading.

Reviewed by Deborah Vink

Why do we love a caper tale, especially one about breaking the law? Is it that we enjoy the chance to side with the charming tricksters — ah, if only we didn’t feel constrained by laws and morality. What fun to outwit the dimwits, especially if not too many people or things are harmed. It’s all exciting good fun, wondering if the “plan” can really be pulled off.

Stealing Mona Lisa by Carson Morton provides all the elements of a good caper. We find ourselves hoping that — aghast — the Mona Lisa, a treasure of Western civilization, will be stolen. We begin to feel some compunction about what acts we’ve cheered on when the Mona Lisa — or is it only a copy — is shoved in trunks, stuffed under shirts, left in an artist’s studio and … well, there is more, but I shouldn’t tell all. The clones of the Mona Lisa are all over the place, wreaking confusion even among the thieves. We are relieved that there were art curators back at the beginning of the 20th century who could actually tell the real painting from the forgery. Or could they?

Who are our charming tricksters? The mastermind is the Argentine Marquis de Valfierno, who is poised and polite, very clever and apparently handsome enough to attract the most beautiful of women. His prey (the Mona Lisa is merely the temporary bait) is the boorish, wealthy Joshua Hart, a nouveau riche American industrialist who wants to buy stolen masterpieces and hide them away in an underground museum in his “castle” in Newport, Rhode Island. We are happy to see him cheated of his purpose and tricked into paying exorbitant sums for forgeries he thinks are real, especially when we realize he cruelly ignores his beautiful, caring wife, whom he has collected with the same avarice as his other possessions.

The story is at its best when Valfierno and Hart are pitted against each other. The minions who carry out the nitty-gritty details don’t have the verve of the central characters. Julia never quite lives up to the clever way she pickpockets her way into the scheme. It’s not very convincing that she would waste her charms on the cold fish Enrico and shrug off the fiery artist who seems to be a young Picasso, and never show interest in Valfierno.  Her banter is a bit too modern in a tale that takes care, sometimes a bit pedantically, to depict Paris as it was in 1911. Vincenzo Peruggia, the rather misguided Italian who wants to return the Mona Lisa to Italy, on the other hand, is rather believable. And, indeed, he is one of the characters who did exist historically and was imprisoned in Italy in 1913 for stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, where he had worked as a cleaner.

Does Morton’s conflating of the actual flood of Paris in 1910 with the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 work?  Well, the flood is definitely a deus ex machina, but after Hurricane Katrina, midwestern tornedos and Japanese tsunami, we can’t ignore that natural events do occur that completely overturn the best laid of plans.

One other important aspect of the successful caper tale is the wink at the end. Even the meticulous Conan Doyle allows Holmes his private secret once the mystery seems to others to be solved. Thanks to Morton for the wink he gives us at the end of this caper.  We want to clap our hands and laugh. If you are looking for a fun read to round out your summer at the beach, coming all too soon to an end, I can recommend Morton’s fictional reconstruction of actual and reported characters and events surrounding the theft and disappearance of the Mona Lisa from 1911-13.

Deborah Vink, a former English and French teacher, lives in Boulder, Colorado, and now works for the Colorado Program of The Nature Conservancy and sings with the Seicento Baroque Ensemble. She holds a B.A. in English from Newcomb College of Tulane University and an M.A. in English from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

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