An Artful Corpse (Art of Murder Mysteries, 3)

Written by Helen Harrison
Review by Mark Spencer

This, the third book of Helen Harrison’s An Art of Murder Mystery series, follows her award-winning An Accidental Corpse, for which she won a Benjamin Franklin Gold Award (IBPA). An Artful Corpse is a murder mystery nestled in the art scene of 1960s New York City. Painter Thomas Hart Benton—forerunner of the Regionalist art movement, best known for his murals—has been murdered. Where? In Studio Nine of the Art Students League. Who did it? The list of suspects is long; Benton had enemies. (He was “a homophobic bully,” recalled one.) But, lead character T.J. Fitzgerald—some will remember him from An Accidental Corpse—himself an aspiring art student, is undaunted in his search for the truth.

Harrison, who has written on Jackson Pollock, introduces us to several leading American artists. We learn about Benton and Pollock, his student. We meet Alfonso Ossorio and his “Congregation” works. At the League, we encounter Charlie Alston, Raymond Breinin, Edward Laning, and executive director Stewart Klonis; and at the Factory, Andy Warhol “and his entourage.” Reflections about art, and its social function, abound. “American art,” pronounces Benton, “should deal with reality—real life, real people—and appeal to ordinary folks, not to dipshit collectors and the Nancy boys who run the museums.” Along with art and artists, Harrison’s scope encompasses other 20th-century figures and topics: from the 1960s folk-music scene at The Bitter End, to the New Deal’s Public Works of Art project, and the New School for Social Research, and from Vietnam War draft-dodgers, to president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Lewis Mumford—a Benton acquaintance.

This is an entertaining historical mystery with smooth, flowing prose that some will find imitates the graceful, rolling lines of Benton’s Retribution mural—from his “American Historical Epic” series—reproduced as the book’s frontispiece.