Still Lives by Maria Hummel

The Blurb On The Back:

Kim Lord’s face looked back at me, disguised in paint and the features of a murdered woman.

Revered artist Kim Lord is about to unveil her most shocking show yet: Still Lives, a series of self-portraits in which she impersonates the female victims of America’s most famous homicides, from Nicole Brown Simpson to the Black Dahlia.

As celebrities and rich patrons pour into L.A.’s Rocque Museum for the opening night, the attendees wait eagerly for Kim’s arrival.  All except Maggie Richter, museum editor and ex-girlfriend of Greg Shaw Ferguson, Kim’s new boyfriend.  But Kim never shows up to her party and the crowd’s impatience slowly turns to unease.

When Greg is arrested on suspicion of murder, it seems that life is imitating art.  Has Kim suffered the same fate as the women in her paintings?  As Maggie is drawn into an investigation of her own, she uncovers dark and deadly truths that will change her life forever …

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s spring 2003.  28-year-old Maggie Richter is an ex investigative journalist who now works as a copy-editor at the Rocque Museum, an institution dedicated to modern art located in downtown Los Angeles.  The Museum is gearing up for the gala launch of artist Kim Lord’s new exhibition Still Lives, a collection 12 paintings, 11 of which are self-portraits of the artist impersonating famous murder victims such as Nicole Brown Simpson and Elizabeth Short (known as the Black Dahlia).  It’s Lord’s first show in several years and the Rocque, which is in financial difficulties, has a lot riding on its success.  Richter, however, would rather avoid the whole thing due to the fact that her ex-boyfriend Greg Shaw Ferguson (a gallery owner) left her for Kim Lord several months earlier and she’s keen not to bump into either of them.

When Lord fails to turn up for the gala and it transpires that no-one’s seen her since she left the Museum the day before, the police are called in to investigate and it isn’t long before Greg is arrested on suspicion of murdering Lord even though no body has been found.  Maggie’s convinced that Greg is innocent and against her better judgment, finds herself trying to piece together what happened, although doing so means looking into her friends and colleagues at the Museum and risks raking up her own failure as an investigative journalist that led to a girl’s death several years before …

Maria Hummel’s literary thriller is a love letter to Los Angeles that’s strong in its observations of the modern art world and its inhabitants but the mystery element quickly tails off under the weight of Maggie’s backstory and the final quarter falls apart as she makes leaps of deduction based on a knowledge of the other characters that isn’t previously shared on the page, concluding with an overblown denouement that made me roll my eyes.

I enjoyed the opening to the novel as Maggie sets up the backdrop to the Museum, Kim Lord’s style of art, the importance of the opening and the breakdown of her relationship with Greg.  Hummel gives her a sharp eye for detail and the kind of learned cynicism that comes from hanging out with LA’s hip art set and I enjoyed her friendship with Yegina, a Vietnamese American woman who feels that her parents view her as a failure compared to her brother Don and who’s looking for a new relationship after her divorce.

However some of the set-up is heavy-handed (so much so that I identified the killer as soon as they were introduced) and to be honest, the love-triangle between Maggie, Greg and Lord is very by-the-numbers and lacks depth in part because we’re told it entirely in flashback from Maggie’s point of view and because we never see her interact with Lord or Greg as they are now, a lot of the tension and drive that should come from her desire to help her ex and her certainty in his innocence feels very artificial.  I also didn’t feel that Maggie’s past as the assistant to an investigative reporter really added much and, for me, the sense of guilt that Maggie felt following the death of an informant didn’t ring true (especially with regard to how it drove Maggie away from a career in the field) and a revelation towards the end of the book undermines a lot of what Maggie believed, which further weakens the impact.

As you’d expect with a literary thriller, pacing is sacrificed for character, which is fine when there’s a lot of depth in the side characters but that’s not the case here.  I ended up feeling that the characters existed to service the plot and hit Hummel’s themes rather than existing for their own purposes and that thinness of characterisation is a problem when it comes to the end of the book where Maggie starts to use her insights into the side characters and their relationships and interactions in order to make the necessary deductions, even though she hasn’t really established that in the preceding part of the book.

The final thing to note is that a big theme in the book is the treatment of female victims of violence and the exploitation of the same – in this case through Lord’s use of murder victims in her art and her desire to place herself in their story.  For me Hummel treads a fine line because there is an element of exploitation within the book itself given that she’s using real murder victims, not just as referenced in the fictional art to explore modern art and its relationship with reality but also, towards the end, by referencing the real-life Laci Peterson case.  I’m not sure if she really does justice to the victims because she is defining them by their ends and using them for the purposes of the plot, but she’s not insensitive in her treatment of them and she discusses the moral complexities within the narrative.

Ultimately, there’s a certain amount of hype about this book courtesy of it having been picked for Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club and although I think that it’s an okay read, you’d really get the most from it if you’re either into L.A. or you’re into the modern art scene.  The book ends with a set-up for a potential set-up but I’m really not sure that I’d rush to check it out.

STILL LIVES was released in the United Kingdom on 1st November 2018.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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