The Swan Thieves, By Elizabeth Kostova

Can this art-world thriller make an impression?
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How do you follow the fastest-selling debut novel in US history? That was the task facing Elizabeth Kostova, whose 2005 novel The Historian sparked a bidding war between publishing houses convinced that they had found a book to bridge the gap between the literary reading group and the Dan Brown-buying public. Translated into 28 languages, The Historian – a clever, if not quite as clever as it thought it was retelling of the Dracula myth – had just enough spookiness and study to cast a spell on its readers, many of whom didn't notice that the writing was often as wooden as a stake through the heart.

Which brings us to The Swan Thieves, another literary(ish) thriller (of sorts) which replaces the Eastern Europe of the Vlad myth with 19th-century Paris and the birth of Impressionism. But before Kostova can cast her historical spell, there is the near-present-day premise to attend to.

Robert Oliver is an acclaimed contemporary artist. When he attempts to slash a painting in Washington's National Gallery, he is taken into psychiatric custody and falls under the care of our protagonist: one Andrew Marlow, a painter himself who, we are told, is especially good at working with creative and difficult patients. So far so promising, if a little reminiscent of Peter Shaffer's Equus. But Marlow is no Martin Dysart. Not for him the existential angst of the doctor who knows not why he cures. Marlow is interested only in the conundrum of why an artist would try to attack a painting, a mystery made even more seductive by the fact that his patient completely refuses to talk.

Cut to the chase: the second half of the novel is taken up with Marlow's trawl through Oliver's past. Up and down the East Coast he goes in search of the artist's former wife, lover, paintings and colleagues in a search for the truth that will unlock Oliver's mind and reveal all to any reader who has the stamina to make it past the book's laboured first half.

Things would move along better if we cared enough about Oliver and his plight. But a silent patient is more of an enigma to his doctor than a reader. And by the time we discover why Oliver paints the same face over and over again, the mystery at the heart of the novel has been revealed, the increasingly irritating Marlow has fallen neatly in love with his patient's ex-lover, and the past has failed to spring to life because of Kostova's preference for exposition over good old-fashioned storytelling.

Better writers than Kostova have tried to bring painting to life on the novel's page and failed, and dialogue such as "I don't think painters have the answers about their own paintings. No one knows anything about a painting except the painting itself" doesn't help. But for all the talk that this is a book about obsession and love, the most disappointing thing about The Swan Thieves is the slightly creepy fact that, within its way too many pages, innocent young women keep falling for the stereotype of the experienced and wise older man, so that in the end it reads more like Woody Allen turning his hand to literary fiction than any serious threat to the writers of the Victorian era which Kostova so clearly cherishes.

When the plot does pick up pace, Marlow nods to Sherlock Holmes and that detective's instinct that one should always visit the scene of the crime in person. The result is one of the few scenes here that might tickle a hair on the back of the neck. Elsewhere, there are all of the faults that make critics sniffy about Dan Brown, but with too little of the plotting and save-the-world urgency which makes that writer so widely read.

Crucially, Marlow's task lacks any sense of jeopardy. Succeed, and he cures someone we don't care about. Fail, and the worst that will happen is an ancient truth will not be revealed and one painter will lose his mind. That's it. So can The Swan Thieves match The Historian in terms of success and sales? If it does, it will be a far greater mystery than anything unravelled within its pages.

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