CLAUDIA RIESS – Art Historian and Mystery Author
Claudia Riess is the author of seven novels, four of which form her art history mystery series published by Level Best Books. She has worked in the editorial departments of The New Yorker and Holt, Rinehart and Winston and has edited several art history monographs. Stolen Light, the first book in her series, was chosen by Vassar’s Latin American history professor for distribution to the college’s people-to-people trips to Cuba.
To Kingdom Come, the fourth and most recent will be added to the syllabus of a survey course on West and Central African Art at the University of Cincinnati. Claudia has written a number of articles for Mystery Readers Journal, Women’s National Book Association, and Mystery Scene magazine. At present, she’s consulting with her protagonists about a questionable plot twist in Chapter 9 of the duo’s murder investigation unfolding in book 5; working title: Dreaming of Monet, scheduled for release in winter 2023.
To Kingdom Come, released May 31, 2022 – Amateur sleuths Erika Shawn, an art magazine editor, and Harrison Wheatley, an art history professor, are caught up in a multiple murder case involving the repatriation of African art seized during the colonial era. The story alternates between present-day events and those described in a journal penned in the late 1890s. Much of the action takes place in London, the scene of the crimes and quest for redemption.
The backstory to an art mystery series – My introduction to the art world came at a very early age and was as much a part of the natural course of events as learning to read and being read to—Winnie the Pooh, Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland—and being told laugh-out-loud stories, ad-libbed by my father, about a little girl named Jeanie, clearly my alias, and her adventures with her anonymous daddy, clearly my own. And like bedtime stories, my introduction to art—my association with art—was, and is, bound up with family, with adventure, with safe harbor. It began with outings to museums. We lived in Brooklyn, and a few great ones were a short subway or car ride away: The Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Frick. And typically, these outings were followed by take-out Chinese food and talks around the kitchen table about what we had seen that day. We debated about which painter’s perspective best described the real world and what the real world really was. Color and light? Shape and dimension? And what about imagination? Created imagery? Inner reality that distorted the exterior world? Talks of the relative nature of beauty and truth were woven into these conversations, and all the while, we were savoring our chicken chow mein and fried rice with lobster sauce.
Because of my background, for a good many years, my idea of the art world was a romanticized one. It was not until later in life, after I’d written a couple of rom-com-like novels and murder mysteries, did I consider writing an art suspense novel. By then, I’d learned a lot more about the art world: About how the price of art is virtually uncontrolled, dependent on the whims of collectors and dealers and the transient tastes and fads of the times. And on the seamier side: art was ransomed, forged, used to launder money, stolen, and sold on the black market. That the art world is, in fact, a world in which the most sublime of human instincts collide with its basest. What a great amalgam for fiction!
So I began to write my art mystery series. I’m a stickler for historical accuracy, so I take off from it, filling in the gaps with events that conform to its character and, therefore, might have been. Then, in a butterfly-effect maneuver, I fast-forward to the present and drop a pair of resourceful lovers (I’m an incurable romantic) into the challenging set of circumstances that have evolved—multiple murders included—and see if the sleuthing duo can sort it out. For instance, in Knight Light, the third in the series, my inspiration came from two quotes. From the painter Marcel Duchamp: “Not all artists are chess players, but all chess players are artists.” And from World Chess Champion Alexander Alekhine: “Chess for me is not a game, but an art.” Interesting! From there, I discovered that the two had actually been teammates on the French chess team in the 1933 Chess Olympiad and, furthermore, that Alekhine’s death in 1946 has been considered a cold case to this day. My fiction took off from there, integrated with the facts.
Although To Kingdom Come, the fourth and most recent book in the series, is basically structured on the same criteria as the three books before it, it’s the first one inspired not by a subject I was at least moderately in the know about, but by one that I was essentially unfamiliar with, that is, the Benin Bronzes. I knew that they existed, yes. I had seen several of these amazing works on exhibit. But it was not until I, by chance, came across a news article about African agents in the fields of the arts and government pressing for their return that I was minimally clued in. I wanted to learn more. Although not my only source, Dan Hicks’s The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution was the main one, and the line that most made my blood boil and led me to writing To Kingdom Come is this: “The sacking of Benin City in 1897 was an attack on human life, on culture, on belief, on art, and sovereignty.”
It took a while to drum up the courage to write the book. I took notes, made outlines, and procrastinated. I was afraid of being accused of either exploiting or trivializing the subject, especially in these understandably sensitive times, when writers engaged in the intimacy of fiction are apt to be criticized for stepping outside their lanes—of race, religion, social status, cultural heritage.
I asked myself how I’d feel if the tables were turned if a fiction writer for whom the Holocaust is not directly related to their history—part of who they are—were to create a story in which the Holocaust is a pivotal plot point. I answered that provided they’re mindful of the sensibilities of others, it’s fine—welcome, really.
Anyway, as fellow humans, aren’t our histories from a broader perspective integrated, the divisions of “otherness” blurred? In the end, I decided it’s possible to preserve the sanctity of a group’s heritage without its becoming sacrosanct. We buy travel guides, visit foreign lands, read history books and memoirs, and write fiction. Why else, if not to reach beyond our own frontiers in the hope of understanding what to others is familiar ground?
Organizations of which Riess is a member:
Sisters in Crime (SinC)
National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE)
Women’s National Book Association (WNBA)
Historical Novel Society
Amazon Link: Amazon.com: To Kingdom Come: An Art History Mystery: 9781685121105: Riess, Claudia: Books
Claudia, I’m impressed by your story of how you formulated the ideas for your books. Your vivid description of your process made me picture you writing your books. I’ve dabbled in many things and hobbies, among them artwork and photography. I look forward to reading your novels. Cheers.
Love the part about drumming up the courage!
This one took a lot more courage than my previous novels. Mostly because I was basically heading into the unknown on a very current and sensitive subject,
Very fun post! I love how, as a writer, research for a novel can take you down unexpected paths and you learn so much in the process.
Thanks, Karen! Yes, I’ve learned a lot of things about the external world in the process of writing mysteries pivoting on historical events or individuals. And in going down those “unexpected paths” you speak of, I’ve learned a lot about myself, too.
I think it’s fabulous that you’re able to integrate the works of art into your writing. Your description of your family discussion after visiting the museum brought back a memory of mine of the thrill of seeing the paintings of Renoir and Monet for the first time at the Art Institute. Good luck with your new book.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Michael. Glad my discussion elicited that wonderful memory!
I’ve read this book and it’s a wonderful story, beautifully written.
Thank you, Marcia!
Thank you for having me as a guest, George. Much appreciated!