Michael Gruber’s The Forgery of Venus combines art history, criminal mischief, and the sleaziness of the contemporary art gallery business to deliver a terrifically fun thriller-esque novel.
The main character, Chaz Wilmot, is an extremely talented but frustrated and depressed magazine illustrator. For no special reason, he volunteers as a human guinea pig in a medical research study to test the effects of Salvia divinorum, a powerful, short-duration psychedelic drug that causes him to imagine he’s living the life of Velásquez, the famous 17th century Spanish painter. These episodes cause all sorts of problems in his real life, and when he wakes up one morning in a strange apartment and discovers that he is actually a successful gallery artist, he flips out and lands in a mental ward.
When he’s released (and learns that he’s back to being the hack illustrator he started out as) Wilmot is eager to clear his head by taking on a lucrative commission to restore the fresco on the ceiling of an Italian mobster’s palazzo. Here, he meets a sleazy German art dealer who specializes in paintings plundered by the Nazis in World War II. The dealer gives him an offer he can’t refuse: to forge an “undiscovered” Velásquez painting. When he accepts, the strange events that have been happening to him intensify, and he finds himself wonder whether he’s completely crazy or if powerful characters behind the curtain are pulling strings.
This is the kind of book that could easily become ludicrous and boring if it had been written by an author less talented than Gruber. His richly developed characters and engaging prose keep the story crisp and believable. The ending is satisfying, too, which is important to me. As soon as I finished the The Forgery of Venus I got started on another one of his novels, The Book of Air and Shadows, which is great so far, as well.