This month, and for something a little different, I’m chuffed to share with you a little event I’m part of – Mystery Thriller Week 2017 – a collaboration of over two hundred authors, mystery and thriller fans, bloggers, podcasters and book enthusiasts from around the world.
Now, of course, you can guess that my personal favourites would be psychological thrillers and art-related mysteries … and I’m excited to introduce my guest host this month: journalist, art historian and author Jennifer S. Alderson
Jennifer was born in San Francisco, raised in Seattle and currently lives in Amsterdam (how jealous are we!). Her love of travel, art and culture has inspired her on-going series of mysteries which follow the adventures of her intrepid protagonist Zelda Richardson around the globe. Welcome to Oz, Jennifer!
Amsterdam: the Perfect Setting for an Art Mystery
By Jennifer S. Alderson
Amsterdam is the perfect setting for an art-related mystery, especially one in which the looting of artwork by the Nazis during World War Two plays a central role. My second novel, The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery is about an American art history student who finds clues to the whereabouts of a collection of masterpieces hidden somewhere in Amsterdam, secreted away in 1942 by a homosexual art dealer who’d rather die than turn his collection over to his Nazi blackmailer.
I can safely say if I hadn’t moved to Amsterdam to study art history twelve years ago, I never would have written this novel. My life here as an expat and art history student, as well as the turbulent history of this amazing city and its many museums, directly inspired the storyline and several of the characters.
A Museum for Every Taste
Art history is what brought me to the Netherlands. Though I’d planned on completing a two-year degree and then moving back to the States, once I got here and started my studies I found it impossible to leave. I ended up earning a four-year master’s degree in art history and museum studies and had the privilege of working for some of the most prestigious museums in the world, all located in this fine city I now call home.
Amsterdam is an art and museum lover’s paradise. There is a saying here that Amsterdam has more museums than in any other city in the world. It might be true – there are more than seventy-five registered museums within the city limits, and a whopping four hundred if you count all of the galleries, private museums and cultural institutions. The Van Gogh Museum, Stedelijk Museum and Rijksmuseum are all situated on one relatively small grassy square in the heart of the city. Though most tourists come for the ‘Big Three’, there is literally a museum for everyone here: from the touristy marijuana, torture and sex museums, to prestigious photography, film and modern art museums, to well-preserved canal houses offering a peek into a bygone era, and specialty ones dedicated to hats, hand bags, eyeglasses, and pipes.
Looted Art and the Restitution Process
Like most European capitals, Amsterdam is drenched in World War Two relics, plaques, monuments, museums and memorials. It is a period that is still tangible for the older generation and its consequences are felt by many daily.
A novel about Nazi-looted artwork could have taken place in Brussels, London, or Paris. Several famous books about the war are set in these cities, also deeply marked by the Nazis’ atrocious actions and policies. However, I’ve tried to create a plot and characters unique to the Netherlands by including details about the Nazis’ strict rules regarding what Dutch artists could paint and gallery owners could display, their underhanded attempts to decimate the local Jewish community without the rest of the population noticing, and their sickening mental and physical abuse of homosexual men and women. I’ve also worked hard to provide a Dutch perspective on the often complex process of art restitution.
While I was studying art history and museology at the University of Amsterdam, the Dutch government organized an exhibition of unclaimed artwork entitled Looted, but from whom? The exhibition was held in the Amsterdam’s Hollandsche Schouwburg, once a popular theatre the Nazis used as a ‘collection point’ for Dutch ‘undesirables’ before transporting to concentration camps abroad.
The restitution of Nazi-looted art was a hot topic during my time at the University of Amsterdam and the intricacies were often discussed by prominent guest speakers directly involved in the exhibition at the Hollandsche Schouwburg, or in such controversial cases as the ‘Goudstikker collection’, an extraordinarily discombobulated, multimillion-dollar claim on an extensive collection of masterpieces once owned by the preeminent Amsterdam art dealer, Jacques Goudstikker. That case alone has spawned two fascinating non-fiction novels.
At the same time, several important non-fiction books and documentaries about Dutch art dealers active during the war and their controversial connections with Nazi officers, were published and featured prominently on regional television shows and in the local media. Newspapers and magazines printed long articles explaining the details of several specific restitution cases, highlighting the complexities and legalities involved even when there is no doubt as to whom the last legal owner was.
During my internships, I watched first-hand as several museums conducted the same archival research Zelda’s team at the Amsterdam Museum does in my novel, while trying to locate the rightful owners to artwork laying unclaimed in Dutch depots for more than seventy years.
Amsterdam: a gorgeous and thriving metropolis
Anyway you cut it, Amsterdam is a gorgeous city. The centuries-old canal houses, boat-filled waterways, perfect puffy clouds and striking Northern light make it one of the most photogenic metropolises in the world, as attested to by the high number of films and television shows filmed here. During the summer, it’s impossible to ride through the center without having to take a detour because a film crew has taken over a street or city block. The city’s canals, many bicycles, tiny alleyways, maze-like streets, centuries-old homes, distinctive churches, and hidden squares lend itself as the setting for many a book as well.
There is a constant flux of tourists here – from day trippers to backpacking loungers – looking to get stoned, take a bike tour, pop into a church, visit an art museum, the Anne Frank House and the Heineken Brewery, often in that order.
Yet the center is also alive and bustling with rich locals and expats who reside in the monumental canal houses, as well as the lucky tenants who scored a rent-controlled apartment, as part of the government’s social housing program. Parents teach their kids to ride bikes on the narrow, brick-paved streets, even allowing them to play soccer or skip rope in-between bikes, scooters, and cars racing by.
This mix of tourist, expat and locals all jammed into a ringed city center you can bike across in a half-hour, makes for an interesting mix of stories and is a constant source of inspiration for me as a writer. In fact, several of the characters in The Lover’s Portrait and my current work-in-progress are reminiscent of people I’ve encountered here.
This city continues to spark new ideas. My next novel, another art-mystery about Asmat bis poles, missionaries and anthropologists – was conceived during my time as a collection researcher at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam East. I know this city – its museums, culture, architecture, colorful locals and even public transportation – will remain my creative muse for as long as I live here.
The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery
When a homosexual Dutch art dealer hides the stock from his gallery – rather than turn it over to his Nazi blackmailer – he pays with his life, leaving a treasure trove of modern masterpieces buried somewhere in Amsterdam, presumably lost forever. That is, until American art history student Zelda Richardson sticks her nose in.
After studying for a year in the Netherlands, Zelda scores an internship at the prestigious Amsterdam Museum, where she works on an exhibition of paintings and sculptures once stolen by the Nazis, lying unclaimed in Dutch museum depots almost seventy years later. When two women claim the same portrait of a young girl entitled Irises, Zelda is tasked with investigating the painting’s history and soon finds evidence that one of the two women must be lying about her past. Before she can figure out which one it is and why, Zelda learns about the Dutch art dealer’s concealed collection. And that Irises is the key to finding it all.
Her discoveries make her a target of someone willing to steal – and even kill – to find the missing paintings. As the list of suspects grows, Zelda realizes she has to track down the lost collection and unmask a killer if she wants to survive.
You can grab your copy of The Lover’s Portrait here:
About the Author
Jennifer S. Alderson was born in San Francisco, raised in Seattle and currently lives in Amsterdam. Her love of travel, art and culture has inspired her on-going series of ‘culturally-inspired’ mysteries which follow the adventures of Zelda Richardson around the globe. Her first book, Down and Out in Kathmandu: Adventures in Backpacking follows Zelda to Nepal and Thailand. While volunteering in Kathmandu as an English teacher, she gets entangled with an international gang of smugglers whose Thai leader believes she’s stolen their diamonds. The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery follows Zelda to Amsterdam, where she discovers clues to the whereabouts of a cache of missing masterpieces buried somewhere in the city, hidden away in 1942 by an art dealer who’d rather die than turn his collection over to his Nazi blackmailer. Her third novel, another art mystery centered around on Papua New Guinean Bijspoles, missionaries and anthropologists, will be released in the summer of 2017.
Catch up with Jennifer here:
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-S.-Alderson/e/B019H079RA/
I’m so intrigued by this novel, it’s just my cup of tea and I’ve just downloaded it onto my Kindle. Happy reading book- and art-lovers!
Anyone can join in and participate in Mystery Thriller Week, and it all hots up during the week of February 12 – 22, 2017 at www.mysterythrillerweek.com. Check out the amazing books, talented authors, personal interviews, new releases, upcoming events and lots of giveaways, prizes and free stuff too!