Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Artful Duplicity: The Van Gogh Deception by Deron Hicks

The boy appeared out of nowhere.

The room was filled with famous paintings and sculptures. The boy didn't seem to notice, a blank expression on his face.

A tall, while-haired man sat down next to the boy. "It's closing time, pal. We need to find your parents. My name's Ken. I'm a decent in the museum. I help people."

Turned over to the Washington, D.C., police, the boy is placed for the night with a temporary foster parent, Mary Sullivan, with little information except that he seems to be suffering from some sort of truama causing dissociative amnesia. When her ten-year-old daughter Camille sees the name "Arthur" inside his jacket, she decides to call him Art. The next day Mary takes Art and Camille back to the National Gallery of Art in the hopes that something there will induce some memories that will lead to Art's parents.

At the museum Art soon realizes that he knows all about most of the paintings. But then, with instructions to the two to stay put, Mary leaves them in the museum cafe to go to the restroom. Art pulls out the contents of one pocket of his jacket, a square of black plastic with a few numbers and letters. As he puzzles over it, he notices a woman at the next table pull a similar square out of her purse and pass it to her husband, telling him to bring up her jacket from the coat check room.

Art jumps up and follows the man, and Camille trails after him down a hall and some stairs to the Check Room. Art hands the plastic square over to the clerk, who retrieves a backpack, with the nametag Art H. clipped to it. Art and Camille realize that the bag may reveal his identity.

Art had been so excited to discover that his name really was Art that he had forgotten to look inside the backpack. "Well, what are you waiting for?" Camille said.

He pulled out a baseball cap--well-worn, dark blue cap with the initials NY on the front. It fit perfectly. He pulled out a can of Coke. "I prefer Coke Zero. All the flavor, none of the sugar," said Camille. "Check the front pocket." Art opened the front pouch. The contents spilled out onto the bench.

"Holy cow," Camille exclaimed. On top of a pile of stuff was a wad of bills. She counted them. "This is more than four hundred dollars! What else?"

"A receipt. From a coffeehouse." said Art. Only two items remained--a brass key and a small piece of white plastic the size of a credit card with a series of embossed numbers.

But hidden within a rip in the main compartment, Art finds a an old leather journal. Inside on a yellowed page marked by a sticky note, he spots an inscription in French, which he realizes he can read, just as he had discovered that he somehow knows the history of many of the paintings they had seen in the museum. Beside the inscription, there is a sketch of the back of a painting in the shape of a spider. "Une Ariagnee'" he reads. Suddenly he feels a need to hide the journal back inside the lining of his backpack. Just then, Camille whispers that a man is staring at them while talking rapidly on his cell phone.

"Let's head back to the Cafe," said Art hurriedly.

"Too late," Camille mutters. "He's..."

A tall man was standing directly in front of them. "Are you Camille Sullivan," he asked.

And we're off, in a rip-roaring, page turner of a thriller, as Camille and Art are soon on the run from a ruthless gang of art forgers who believe Art holds the only link to their plan to sell a faked painting, supposedly stolen by the Nazis and hidden away in a vault, the long-sought The Park at Arles with the Entrance See Through the Trees by Vincent Van Gogh, about to be sold to the National Gallery for almost two million dollars. It's Art's inside knowledge of the secrets of the National Gallery of Art that finally bring the forgers back full circle to the Gallery for the final showdown.

Deron Hicks' forthcoming The Van Gogh Deception (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) is a mystery crime story impossible to put down. Hicks builds suspense masterfully as he switches back and forth between the forgery gang and the two bright and fleet-footed kids on the run through downtown Washington, as one by one the contents of that backpack lead the two, clue by clue, concluding in a secret passage in the National Gallery of Art at midnight, and the final showdown with hundreds of millions of dollars and Art's father's life on the line.

This one is a worthy successor to those noted art mysteries of Newbery fame, Blue Balliett's Chasing Vermeer and E. L. Konigsberg's  From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. and a killer-diller of a middle reader suspense story with two bright tweeners who manage to outwit world-class art thieves in what Kirkus Reviews calls "A suspenseful mystery romp with art appreciation and heartening trust in readers' intelligence."  

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