Reviewed in Australia on 9 September 2017
A swiftly flowing narrative, the beauty and rhythm of Amsterdam, mystery and intrigue surrounding paintings pilfered during the second world war by Nazis, and a charming relationship between the protagonist, Zelda, and her young Dutch tutor, Friederich, make this a wonderfully readable mystery.
It opens with a flashback to 1942, with a man named Arjan trying to stay one step ahead of Nazi Oswald Drechsler by keeping art treasures out of the hands of the Gestapo. These flashbacks are intermittent throughout yet involving, balancing what is occurring in the present with slowly revealed glimpses into the past. Zelda Richardson is a likable protagonist easy for the reader to embrace, because she’s far from perfect, yet resilient. Thanks to Professor Marianne Smit, who has encouraged her, she gets an unpaid internship at the Amsterdam Museum. Her boss Bernice Dijkstra, and the stern curator Huub Konjin enlist her aid in helping with the website tied to the Stolen Objects exhibition. The translations from Dutch to English are a mess. It seems a dream assignment for young Zelda, who views the museum as a kind of Camelot. It is through her eyes that the reader gets a wonderful sense of living in Amsterdam.
Zelda is soon at odds with Huub, however, when two separate claimants step forward to claim one of the paintings even before the exhibit has opened. In the background, Konrad Heider has been searching religiously for his family’s paintings. The difficulty of proving prominence for both Rita Brouwer, and Heider’s client, Karen O’Neil, is a tricky one, however. After a day escorting Rita around Amsterdam, enjoying her company as she shares with Zelda her memories of this part of the world during the war, Zelda is convinced of Rita’s genuineness and becomes her champion. This places her at odds with Huub, who clearly is ready to grant the overbearing Karen rights to the painting. Zelda cannot understand why, or why Karen is spending so much money to claim a relatively worthless painting.
There are secrets and intrigue here, and when Zelda oversteps her assignment by speaking with a relative related to the search for documentation, it sets in motion unexpected violence, as the past reaches out to the future. Sixty-five paintings, forty-five crates, and war-time homosexuality and blackmail make for intrigue and a touch of danger amidst a colorful backdrop. More and more, as Zelda attempts to be Rita’s champion, she places in jeopardy the Master’s program she so covets so that she can become a curator and work at exhibition design. On the personal front, Zelda’s boyfriend Pietro seems to be using her, and ignoring her, while her pal Friedrich, with whom she has no romantic feelings, is always there to help. He operates quadrocoptors and small drone planes by remote control as a hobby, and this will come into play as Zelda tries to discover what one of the claimants is really up to.
The mystery surrounding the painting, Irises, and its provenance is augmented by the wonderful atmosphere of life in Amsterdam. The heroine and her sidekick are likable and the reader wants them to succeed. The narrative itself is fairly breezy, flowing and unfolding naturally, even within the flashbacks. The last third of the book is quite exciting, with a sprinkling of danger, and a dash of violence. The conclusion to the mystery is very satisfying, suggesting promise of other adventures for Zelda. All in all, this appears to be a very fine mystery series.
If I have a caveat, it is that Zelda did not take the romantic direction I’d hoped for, and where the story-line appeared to be heading. Perhaps with this being a series, the author felt that Zelda being too entangled romantically would smother options in upcoming books, but it would have been charming, in my opinion. It is a very minor quibble, however. The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery by Jennifer S. Alderson is a wonderful read for fans of the genre, and is much more enthralling than its breezy narrative and cerebral subject matter — a museum, works of art — suggests. Highly recommended!