KAREN ODDEN: Like my friend Rhys, my family and I try to spend some time out of the Arizona heat each summer. In Park City, Utah, the mountains are a lovely change, and over the years I’ve found that I write differently up here. I hike most days, and as best I can explain, the act of shifting my gaze constantly between the expansive mountain vistas and the tiny wildflowers opens up what feels like a play-space in my brain, with room for weird plot twists and eccentric characters.
The foundation of the novel was laid earlier, though, with my work at Christie’s auction house back in the scandal-filled 1990s. (For those who don’t recall, Sotheby’s and Christie’s were caught price-fixing, and the heads of Sotheby’s paid millions of dollars in fines and stepped down in disgrace, while Christie’s employee Christopher Davidge skated away in exchange for his testimony.) Having never taken an art history class, I didn’t know a Miro from a Modigliani when I arrived. But I knew marketing, so I’d been hired to buy ad space in publications such as the New York Times, Magazine Antiques, Art & Auction, and the Maine Antiques Digest, where we promoted our auctions for everything from Van Gogh paintings to Fabergé eggs and Paul Revere silver spoons
In order not to appear a complete idiot about art, I perused these publications and many others. (This, despite the fact that when I was a child, my father insisted I’d never find a job that paid me to sit around and read!)
Through reading, I learned to appreciate art objects, but what captivated me were the stories around them—the daring heists, the deceptive forgeries, the vicious family feuds, the anonymous sales by European nobility who sought to mend their fortunes discreetly, the desperate attempts to preserve art during WWII, the lawless pillaging of antiquities from Egypt, and so on. On my 29th birthday, in 1994, I was in “the room where it happens”—Christie’s main salon—when Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Hammer, the notebook with the famous Vitruvian man, was auctioned off in a fierce, frantic bidding war for $28 million to an anonymous phone bidder, who turned out to be Bill Gates. It was the first time I felt down to my bones, and in the adrenaline running down my arms, the suspense, allure, and history that surround pieces of art.
For my third novel, I wanted to explore the cutthroat 1870s London art world, with an artist heroine, but did such a woman really exist? In graduate school, at NYU, studying the Victorian era and its literature, I learned just how difficult it was for nineteenth-century middle-class women to exert agency, to authorize their lives, to carve their own paths as professionals in any fields other than the genteel ones of teaching and governessing. No amount of “feistiness” could overcome the very real economic, social, educational, and political limitations women faced, including the system of coverture, which meant that married women could not keep their wages, own or inherit property, or initiate any legal proceeding, including divorce.
De Morgan’s story raised all sorts of questions for me. What does it mean to be discouraged from your ambitions by your mother, by a mentor, and by society? How does it narrow your horizon, shut down your heart, fade your sense of bright possibilities? And is there a flip side of this coin, for men?
In A Trace of Deceit, Annabel is a student at the Slade in 1875. Her older brother Edwin was ostensibly the “gifted” child of the family, but pressured by his ambitious father to develop his genius, Edwin grew sulky and resentful, eventually turning to a life of opium, crime, and lies. A convicted forger, Edwin has just been released from prison as the novel begins, and as he seeks to mend his ruptured relationship with Annabel, he swears to her that he has reformed and will pursue his craft within the law. When he is murdered, and a priceless French painting by François Boucher disappears (in chapter 1), Annabel is desperate to discover the truth about Edwin’s death. Had Edwin lied to her? Or had he genuinely changed his ways? As she and Inspector Hallam of the Yard follow the clues that lead to Edwin’s past, she realizes her memories of Edwin are not like a painting, fixed in form and tone; they all bear a trace of deceit.
This blogpost originally appeared on the Jungle Red Writers blog, courtesy of Rhys Bowen.