The Magyar Venus by Lyn Hamilton (Berkley Prime Crime), 258 pages, $9.99 paper. Rating: NNN
It's that time of year, when heavy lit gives way to the lighter stuff. That and the Crime Writers of Canada's annual Arthur Ellis Awards (tonight, Thursday, June 9) lead us to mysteries, and in particular to one of the books nominated in the best-fiction category. (See readings, this page).
Lyn Hamilton's novel tracks antique dealer Lara McClintoch's attempts to discover why, after the unveiling of the Magyar Venus, a mammoth ivory carving dating from the upper paleolithic period, an old school chum has committed suicide. Lara's old flame Károly Molnár has brought the carving to a Toronto museum. He's hitting her up big time and is still charming, but he might be hiding something.
Is the Magyar Venus authentic? Is Molnár a fraud? And why are her old college pals behaving so weirdly?
Coincidence plays a major role in this story. Lara runs into Diana, a member of their tight clique from college who just happens to be meeting the rest of the group at a bar. It turns out all five of the Dovercourt Divas are invited to the unveiling of the valuable carving, the event that leads to their friend's death.
Eventually, Lara heads to Budapest to test the authenticity of the Venus. There, another series of unbelievably - unfortunately - lucky breaks leads her to the truth about its real origins.
The section of the story that unfolds in Hungary has a terrific sense of place (you'll want to book a ticket immediately), and there are lots of well-researched details about the verification of artifacts. The characters - especially the museum toadies and the smarmy but sad Molnár - come to vivid life.
But in a book where academic intrigue and archaeological research replace nail-biting suspense and anxiety-provoking violence, the coincidences come across as a bit of a cheat.