At first glance it seems an unlikely fit; a psychological thriller/mystery that interweaves the stories of the great (albeit fictional) 19th century Chinese-American landscape photographer Wilfred Eng and the moral scruples of small-time Seattle art dealer Robert Armour.
However, 1975 UM MFA graduate Thomas Orton’s first novel succeeds because of his vivid characterization, twisting and turning plot, and satirically informed portrayal of the sleazy underbelly of the West Coast art world.
And really, once you see that almost all the elements of an engrossing page turner—money and greed, trust and betrayal, sex and power, fame, art, and just artists for chrissake—are found in abundance in the art scene, then why didn’t someone think of it sooner?
Orton opens the book by bringing his characters immediately to the foreground and wryly describing these art world denizens. Protagonist Robert Armour, “the photo hermit of Seattle,” is evaluating some glass photographic plates from the 1800s for “Judith ... the scion of Seattle pioneers and a talentless painter of abstracts.” Armour again: “Judith saw my work as something like the art equivalent of the McDonald’s take out window; I had the advanced degrees and disappointments; all I needed was a paper hat.”
When Judith sends Armour down to the basement with some of her garbage in order to snub him and weasel out of paying his consultation fee—“like her cheapskate forebearers,” he notes, “Judith believed that paying for advice was like paying for air”—he makes a discovery that rapidly unspools into a messy little dilemma within a dilemma.
Armour finds a box containing five more albumen photographic plates which he recognizes to be the likeness and work of Wilfred Eng, called a genius by his contemporaries, who coincidentally died in a fire just blocks from Judith’s basement. As an art historian, Armour knows that the plates belong in a museum, but he also senses just how valuable they are and even knows someone who might buy them quietly. Since Judith is incommunicado for a few days, he finds himself in a quandary.
Enter Armour’s old “friend” from his days in the ‘Frisco art scene, Parker Lange. Cool and focused as a hitman, he is the consummate wheeler-dealer, unscrupulous and vulpine, by turns both a sycophant and a bully, “who could not only sell you land in Florida, but convince you that the swamp gases rising out of it were friendly UFOs.” Armour claims only to have been friends with Lange because of business, but there is a dark side to Armour that attracts him to Parker; this is the same side that got him into that trouble in his past, the side that tempts him throughout the book with the big payoff and fame. This region of the psyche, which is home to that vanity and hubris that artists are so susceptible to, is the territory that Lange is so skilled at exploiting, and does so to Armour mercilessly. Armour knows all of this, but yields thinking that he is wiser, and believing that something is owed to him.
The narrative thread is punctuated by the diary entries of Wilfred Eng’s lover Ellen Danforth, the nude subject of the lost plates and the wife of his benefactor, who is ultimately betrayed by Eng. And as Armour researches more about the enigmatic Eng, these two seemingly divergent stories about photographer and historian come together with surprising ease. Trust is revealed as a vital aspect of the art world where—in a market driven by opinion, fashion, flattery and taste—misplaced trust can have devastating consequences.
Twenty years earlier a younger, more idealistic Robert Armour had been burned in a deal when he purchased and then resold a suite of very creditable fake Edward Weston erotic photographs. Because he trusted the seller, and his clients in turn trusted his judgment, he not only lost his gallery, but more importantly his credibility and confidence. However, in a bit of dramatic irony worthy of Sophocles, Armour is presented with the perfect opportunity to recoup the losses, both financial and metaphysical, that he has been recriminating about in rainy Seattle all these years. Perfect—that is, as long as he can overcome what he has become in his years away from the mercenary art world of San Francisco: basically a nice fortyish bachelor who is sliding toward stability in the form of his girlfriend and her son. And the real core of the book, like any great story, is ultimately Armour’s own identity. He needs to ask himself who he is and who he wants to become. It just so happens that the glass plates of Wilfred Eng provide just that sort of opportunity for him to turn back the clock and relive what he could have been—or re-assess what he has in a new, more appreciative light.
As one of the more finely drawn characters, Parker Lange, the Rasputin-like schemer of the novel, says, “Risk is always where you least expect it.” Thomas Orton’s first novel is just this sort of an unexpected risk that covers the elusive ground of the art world thriller.