The Portrait, by Iain Pears

An artist's chance to silence his tormentor
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The Independent Culture

The novel is set in the early 20th century, and the sole narrator is a painter, Henry MacAlpine, born to poverty-stricken Scottish parents, who has finally succeeded. After years of suffering from the vitriolic William Nasmyth, an implacable, heartless art critic, MacAlpine has the chance to paint his portrait at the artist's home on a remote island in Brittany.

The two men are polar opposites in background and character, but their lives have been interwoven. Each has cheated the other, and betrayals loom large in their relationship. MacAlpine has been involved in forgery and deception; Nasmyth has tried to crush the spirit of a fragile-seeming woman painter whom MacAlpine tried to befriend when she was a fellow student in Paris.

The conventions and atmosphere of the late-Victorian art world, when an art critic could have tremendous influence, are perfectly conveyed. This is an atmospheric tour de force of historical writing, as it is of narrative skill. With an author as skilled as Pears, every book can be quite different in structure and still carry total conviction. In An Instance of the Fingerpost, he spun the story from the viewpoints of four characters. The Portrait is an interior monologue, yet succeeds in its concentrated intensity.

It's trendy at present to drag art into mystery fiction, and all too often it pops up as what Hitchcock called the McGuffin - like the Maltese Falcon, merely the nominal object of the story. Here it is a vital element: indeed, the story and characters grow out of the nature of painting. MacAlpine's shock at a particular discovery perfectly reflects the failure of an artist of his time to anticipate the work of Bacon, Freud and the future of British figural art.

But the book is also a very suspenseful mystery. I won't commit the unforgivable critical error of disclosing the ending. Nevertheless, though MacAlpine avows that creative people never commit murder, he also admits the possibility that they always get away with it.

Jane Jakeman's 'In the Kingdom of Mists' is published by Black Swan