Richer than Croesus and sicker than Lazarus, Laverne Taubman prefers to die slowly from gum infections rather than allow anyone to look inside her mouth. After the bizarre murder of painter Frank Spira's former lover, Jacob Grossman, obsessed Spira biographer Nicholas Greer learns that Taubman may hold clues to Spira's missing and mysterious masterwork, Incarnation.
Greer is ushered to Taubman's bedside hoping for answers, but receives only anger as Taubman becomes incensed over the same subject that caused Grossman to break his own nose against a mirror. Her last words to him about Incarnation --- "He died for it, and you will, too" --- nonetheless fail to convince the less-than-successful writer to cease his search for the painting.
Taubman is just one of the finely detailed characters in Joseph Geary's assured first novel, SPIRAL. Another is Tony Reardon, who is also one of the "Spira's Lovers" Greer contracts to write about for the New York Times. Still another is the shabby police officer who interviews Greer since he was Grossman's last visitor and made a recording of their conversation. When the NYPD target Greer as a suspect, everyone soon realizes that the shabby officer was someone completely different.
It's difficult to describe any other steps in or stages of Geary's plot without threatening to rob readers of their own pleasure in being sucked into his fictional vortex. The author combines a chilling study of high-stakes high art dealing with a murder mystery, an action story, and a portrait of an artist as a young madman --- not to mention the portrait of another artist, Greer, watching his life and psyche unravel as his involvement with Incarnation deepens.
Broke and alone (his wife leaves him early on), Greer has been researching Spira for six years. With his 900-page biography finished and on an important publisher's desk, he at last stands the chance of success. But after interviewing the long-missing Grossman and learning that a work Spira created in Tangier in 1957 may still exist, Nick uncovers a series of sex, lies, and even videotape (well, 8mm film). As he begins to understand the significance of Spira's great work, he also comes under scrutiny from Oscar Nagel, an important Spira collector.
Geary keeps the pace up, moving between New York, London and Tangier, as Greer becomes more entangled in shady art-world dealings and more confused by Spira's even shadier past. So often, suspense and thriller protagonists are fabulously polished humans destined to meet and love other fabulously polished specimens of the opposite sex during their adventures. Nicholas Greer is anything but polished; he would be more accurately described as shambling and disheveled. He is also disorganized, jealous of the competition, and ill-prepared for the events and people he encounters.
Geary also manages a delicate balance between scenes of Greer's search, the NYPD's investigation, and Nagel's machinations, alternating scenes of furious momentum with those of slow frustration. The dénouement will fascinate even readers who have cannily deduced Spira's (and Taubman's, among others) chilling secret. Waiting for Geary's next book will seem slower than death by dental abscess.
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on January 23, 2011