Thriller mixes stolen art and experimental drugs

The following review appears in the July 2011 issue of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties, Florida) and the July-August issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida).

Somerville, by Brian Stanford. iUniverse. 470 pages. $34.95 hardbound, $24.95 trade paper.

Somerville qualifies as a book of Jewish interest not because it is driven by major Jewish characters or major Jewish themes, but rather because the intriguing story line is drawn from the unfortunate history of Nazi crimes against Jews. In this case, there are two centers of interest that interact. The first is that a major Swiss pharmaceutical company had supplied experimental drugs to the Nazis, who had carried on their experiments on Jewish (and other) prisoners in the concentration camps. The second is that in the process of confiscating any and all kinds of items owned by Jews, the Nazis had confiscated their collections of fine art. 

Years and decades later, the confiscated art works, long stored secretly in the vaults of Swiss banks, begin showing up at auctions.

A group of people from various academic disciplines, including Cambridge University experts in art history, begin to suspect a link between the disappearance of a pharmacologist (Somerville) who used to work for this major Swiss company, a series of unexplained deaths, and the emergence of the stolen art. They form an unofficial task force to gather evidence about the provenance of the paintings, the deaths, and the pharmaceutical company. Then a leader of the team turns up dead. Though police officials call it a suicide, those who know Reggie Crawford, the Cambridge don, are quite sure he has been murdered to close stifle the investigation. His murder makes the group confident that they are on the right track.

Soon after Crawford’s funeral, a young Cambridge professor named Adam Locke receives a treasure trove of records, mostly on computer disks, that Crawford had been keeping. The disks contain Crawford’s narrative of all that he and his cadre had discovered. Locke is invited to study the materials – and to join the group. Of course, he does so.

Author Brian Stanford reveals his plot through two narrative sources, one inside the other. Locke is the outside narrator. It is through his voice, ultimately, that everything reaches the reader. However, we hear Crawford’s voice as well. As Locke applies himself to mastering Crawford’s narrative, we can look over his shoulder and follow Crawford’s recreation of the distant past and the steps of the investigation.

Thus, Stanford’s skillful unveiling of plot braids three time-lines: the story of the investigation until Crawford’s death, the much longer story that the investigation has uncovered, and the much shorter story of Locke’s involvement that yet becomes the lens through which readers receive everything else.

The race against time requires that the team gather enough evidence so that law enforcement officials will take the charges seriously and get involved before the inheritors of the diabolical criminal scheme silence the team and/or destroy anyone who could be a witness against them.

Brian Stanford

The central suspicion is that back in the 1940s the Nazis arranged to pay for the experimental drugs, including a very special one named RX40 produced by the Swiss company, by exchanging the confiscated artworks for them. The present-day question: who is reaping the benefits of this grotesque harvest as the paintings come on the market?

Somerville engages readers with Switzerland’s reluctant accommodation to the emerging facts. Officially neutral, Swiss institutions and businesses were highly complicit in various Nazi activities, hiding behind the confidentiality of banking regulations. Decades later, what was to become of these treasured paintings, once owned by European Jews, when the trail of ownership vanished?

Over the course of the novel, Brian Stanford slowly expands his cast of characters, takes us to many vividly drawn locations in England and Switzerland, and injects the mystery with a powerful romance between Adam Locke and Clare Somerville, the beautiful young daughter of the vanished title character.  

An impressive debut novel, Somerville may suffer somewhat from “too-muchness.” The degree of detail that the author rolls out is beyond the needs of effective storytelling; certainly, it is beyond the needs of efficient storytelling. It is as if Mr. Stanford knows so much about his subject that he can’t leave anything out. Still, it has much to recommend it. Gracefully written, generally well-paced, and at once invitingly exotic and strangely familiar, Somerville does a classy job of educating and entertaining.

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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