> Zed Book Club / Bookshelf / Writer's Room / Anna Porter Layers on the Intrigue in Her Second Art-World Thriller ‘Deceptions’

Toronto author Anna Porter was inspired to write her second novel on a trip to Strasbourg. Photo: Doug Forster

> Writer's Room

Anna Porter Layers on the Intrigue in Her Second Art-World Thriller ‘Deceptions’

Art expert Helena Marsh and her wannabe lover, ex-Budapest policeman Attila Feher, are back and chasing more bad guys in a mystery set in motion by a painting / BY Kim Honey / April 6th, 2021


At a time when travel is impossible and Europe may as well be in Antarctica, Anna Porter’s new murder mystery Deceptions takes the reader on a grand tour of Paris, Strasbourg and Budapest, with a side trip to Rome.

These are cities the author knows well, given the former book publisher was born in the Hungarian capital and, in pre-pandemic times, often travelled abroad for book fairs, launches and talks. She also accompanied her husband Julian Porter – a lawyer, art critic and author of two art books – on trips to the continent’s grandest museums, galleries and churches.

In fact, the author’s second novel featuring art expert Helena Marsh, which came out April 6, took shape on a vacation four years ago.

“Julian, in addition to being fascinated by art and artists, is also in love with cathedrals. As far as I can tell, they’re often quite interchangeable,” Porter deadpans. “We went to Strasbourg specifically to see the cathedral, which is where Julian spent all his time, leaving me free to wander about and imagine scenes and ideas.”

Deceptions by Anna Porter - ZED - Scroll

When the first chapter opens, Helena is getting a pedicure near her office in Paris when she smells the signature scent of her former lover – “wet wool and cigarettes” – before she sees him. Retired Budapest detective Attila Feher has taken a gig as a bodyguard to the Hungarian government’s Council of Union representative in Strasbourg, and offers Helena a job authenticating what the politician believes to be an undiscovered painting by the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi that hangs in his Strasbourg apartment. If this artwork, reminiscent of a real Gentileschi called Judith Beheading Holofernes, is the real deal, it is worth tens of millions of dollars.

The Crossroads of Europe

The bells in Strasbourg’s cathedral, a marvel of Gothic architecture, are calling the faithful to Sunday mass as Helena navigates throngs of tourists on her way to an Ill River boat tour, where she meets a mysterious man on board to discuss the painting. When he is shot in the neck with an arrow, Helena jumps off the boat onto the nearby embankment in hot pursuit, only to lose the marksman when he ducks into the cathedral. While the killer gets away, Helena finds the murder weapon – a longbow – stashed underneath a bench near the exit, and the race is on to figure out who the dead man is, who killed him and why.

The book was inspired by this French city near the German border, which is home to the European Union (EU) Parliament as well as the Council of Europe, a human-rights organization made up of 47 nations, some of which, like Hungary, are EU members.

“I really started with Strasbourg,” the author says about her follow-up to 2017’s The Appraiser, featuring the crime-solving art expert and her ex-lover. “I found the city fascinating. I also found the whole European Union thing, and all the divisions within the union and all the somewhat occasionally discredited countries that take part in the voting process, fascinating.”

In the novel, Hungary is described as a kleptocracy led by a pocket dictator, and his deputy and minions play a central role in the plot. In the interview, Porter points out friends of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are exceedingly well off, and the mayor of his tiny hometown, for example, is now one of the country’s wealthiest men.

“I avoided using any of the [politicians’] real names and I avoided using the name of the prime minister,” Porter says diplomatically, adding, “He knows how I feel about him.”

ZED - SCROLL
‘Deceptions’ imagines an undiscovered painting reminiscent of ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’ by Artemesia Gentileschi, which now hangs in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. painted in 1620 in the style of Caravaggio.  Photo: Summerfield Press/Corbis/Getty Images

Art Lessons

Like The Appraisal, there are multiple dubious buyers interested in the painting and a mystery within a mystery about its provenance. Deceptions is about deceit in politics and the art world, which is filled with shady characters trying to launder money through artwork or make their fortune off forgeries and copies. It adds up to a plethora of bad guys, who include a Ukrainian oligarch and a member of the Russian Federation’s intelligence agency, formerly known as the KGB, and speaks to Porter’s obsession with the “dark, European world of corruption.”

“One of the joys of reading a mystery is being able to figure out whodunit or whydunit, or what it’s all about. So it’s a little bit like a puzzle,” Porter explains.

As for Artemisia Gentileschi, an early follower of Caravaggio whose father Orazio Gentileschi was also a painter of renown, Porter was intrigued when Julian told her the backstory of the 17th-century female artist who made it in a man’s world. In the novel, Helena reveals Orazio bragged about his daughter, who started painting in his studio at 12 and produced her first signed work at 17. A year later, Artemisia was raped by a friend her father hired to teach her, which is documented in court transcripts from a 1611 trial when her father sued the friend because he had besmirched Orazio’s reputation.

“Her art is very, very physical and you really get a sense of the blood and guts of what she is portraying,” says Porter. “All she wanted to do was paint. She was a huge admirer of Caravaggio and his style of art in those days was an innovation. And she just persevered. She was tough.”

Local Perspective

As the novel hopscotches around Europe, the reader gets an insider’s sense of place, including the customs and the culture of each country, and that includes a smattering of phrases in Hungarian, Russian and French – all languages Porter speaks and reads. When Attila answers the phone, for example, he says, “Csókolom,” a Hungarian greeting that references an old hand-kissing custom and means hello and goodbye. In Paris, when Attila orders a bottle of Bordeaux because a waiter tells him it was a good year, Helena knows Attila has been taken for a tourist since the last good year was 2015. You can easily picture the Saint-German-des-Prés café and see the disdain on the server’s face. In Budapest, Helena joins a tour of the Hungarian Parliament building, where she breaks away from the group to snap photos of the office doorplates where she glimpses the Strasbourg killer entering the building. All of them have the prefix Dr., which is commonly used to convey importance. ”None of the doctors she had met in the east had medical degrees, though a couple of them offered in Poland had offered to examine her,” Helena says.

Porter was careful “not to have too many long complicated names with lots of consonants and not enough vowels,” but admits she’s not sure how to pronounce the name of a Polish museum director who appears briefly in the book.

When asked how her heroine Helena has developed as a character since The Appraiser, Porter says the woman who travels with weapons and a case of disguises – and knees a thug in the nether regions in one scene – has a kinder, gentler side when it comes to Attila.

Deceptions holds promise for their future relationship, but that won’t be revealed for a while as the next book in the series is on hold while Porter writes more magazine and newspaper articles. There’s also a new contemporary novel taking shape that is set at a cottage on Lake Huron not unlike the one the Porters own near Honey Harbour, Ont.

“I’m well into it,” she says. “It’s the only thing that keeps me sane during this pandemic. It’s an escape, really.”

THE SCROLL

Norma Dunning wins $25,000 Governor General’s English fiction prize for ‘Tainna’The Edmonton-based Inuk writer explores themes of displacement, loneliness and spirituality in six short stories


Omar El Akkad wins $100,000 Giller prize for “What Strange Paradise”The former Globe and Mail reporter, who published "American War" to acclaim in 2017, tackles the global migrant refugee crisis in his second novel


South African Author Damon Galgut Wins the Booker Prize For ‘The Promise’Galgut received nominations for his 2003 and 2010 works before finally taking home the prize this year. 


Hollywood Legend Paul Newman Discusses Life, Acting and Aging Gracefully in Newly Discovered MemoirPublishers of the newly discovered memoir say the Hollywood legend wrote the book in the 1980s in response to the relentless media attention he received during that time.


Here’s What You Need to Know About the Toronto International Festival of AuthorsDirector Roland Gulliver lands in Toronto to open his second, much-expanded virtual festival with more than 200 events


Tanzanian Novelist Gurnah Wins 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for Depicting the Impact of Colonialism and Refugee StoriesGurnah, 72, is only the second writer from sub-Saharan Africa to win one of the world's most prestigious literary awards


Miriam Toews Garners Third Giller Prize Nomination for “Fight Night” after Shortlist AnnouncedSophomore efforts from novelists Omar El Akkad and Jordan Tannahill join debut books from Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia and Angélique Lalonde


Tina Brown’s New Book, ‘The Palace Papers’, Covers the Royal Family’s Reinvention After Diana’s Tragic DeathTina Brown's sequel to her 2007 release 'The Diana Chronicles' is set to hit shelves April 12, 2022. 


Audible.ca Releases Andrew Pyper’s Exclusive Audiobook “Oracle” For New Plus Catalogue LaunchThe thriller about a psychic FBI detective is one of 12,000 titles now available for free to members


Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen to Release Book Based On Their “Renegades” PodcastThe new book will feature a collection of candid, intimate and entertaining conversations


Prince Harry Will Publish a Memoir in Late 2022Harry says he's writing the book "not as the prince I was born but as the man I have become."


> STAY UP TO DATE

Sign Up for the Weekly Book Club Newsletter