Russell James is the author of ten books, and is a former chair of the CWA. I've enjoyed many conversations with Russell in the years since I first came across him when I read his novel Underground. He is a varied and thoughtful writer who deserves to be better known. His non-fiction includes an excellent book about fictional detectives. When I last met Russell, I invited him to contribute a guest post to this blog at some point. Here it is:
'Art is fertile ground for crime writers. Huge sums are paid for a single item, a work that can be relatively small and transportable. In the first of my novels to revolve around the theft of an old master (Daylight, now out of print and hard to find) part of the fun lay in how the stolen masterpiece would be smuggled out of what was then the Soviet Union. The story included an art tutorial on the differences between copies, fakes and restoration – distinctions not as clear as you might hope. Great for complicating the plot.
In my most successful novel, Painting In The Dark, the art world underpinned the plot – yet it frightened some potential publishers who saw it as politically dangerous. I guess it was controversial: set in 1997 but looking back to the 1930s and 40s, it suggested that Tony Blair’s New Labour Party had bewitched a nation and swept to power much as Hitler’s New Socialists had in Germany. But the book’s main theme was art and the mania of art collectors motivated by more than money, more than sex, by an obsession to acquire and own a unique fetishistic object. They’ll stop at nothing to achieve their ends, making them ideal characters for a crime story. They are driven, they want ‘a brush with genius’. We readers understand and sympathise – even if we wouldn’t kill to gain our ends.
Plenty of crime novels allow wrongdoers to achieve their ends, and we law-abiding readers sometimes cheer – though when villains are motivated by cash alone the odds are they won’t get away. But an art fanatic? Why shouldn’t such a so-called villain keep the prize?
Remember: these are crime novels, not moral tracts.'