Lesson in Red
reviewed by Barbara Saffer
Lesson in Red is the sequel to Still Lives, which focuses on 28-year-old Maggie Richter, a copy editor/publicist for the Rocque Museum in Los Angeles. The Rocque is an avant-garde gallery that hosts controversial art exhibits, such as one featuring every artist deemed offensive by a powerful politician.
During the grand opening of Kim Lord’s exhibit called Still Lives, about female murder victims, the artist is killed. Maggie assists with the investigation and becomes very disturbed as she helps private detective Ray Hendricks track down the perpetrator.
As Lesson in Red opens, Maggie is taking a break from her job at the Rocque while she recuperates from the Kim Lord ordeal. In fact Maggie is thinking of quitting the museum and becoming a freelance journalist. So Maggie is intrigued when wealthy museum founder Janis Rocque asks her to write a story about 22-year-old Brenae Brasil, a Los Angeles Art College (LAAC) graduate student who allegedly committed suicide.
Brenae was an up-and-coming video artist who made a well-received film called Packing, which documented the week she spent carrying a loaded gun on her person 24/7 – to campus, to the grocery store, to the bathroom, to meals, to bed. Later, Brenae was killed with the gun, and police investigators determined it was a self-inflicted wound.
Janis Roque isn’t so sure though. Before Brenae died, she sent Janis a copy of an unreleased film called Lesson in Red, in which Brenae is having sex with a man whose face is obscured. In a voiceover, Brenae observes she’s being coerced by the man, who has power over her career. Janis believes the man is connected with LAAC, which has a well-known culture of giving preferential treatment to men. Janis even speculates that LAAC would cover up sexual harassment/rape, so she asks Maggie and private investigator Ray Hendricks to expose the man in Brenae’s video, and to publicize the toxic environment for women at LAAC.
To accomplish this, Maggie goes undercover as a gallerina at The Westing Gallery, where LAAC director Hal Giroux is mounting an exhibit called Shoe Cathedral. Brenae was one of Giroux’s mentees, and his four remaining protégés – Erik, Zania, Layla, and Pearson – are doing the physical work of stringing shoes into columns and arches. The plan is for Maggie to spy on the foursome before and after they’re interviewed by Ray Hendricks, to see if they give anything away.
Maggie has well-honed detective instincts as well as drive and perseverance, all of which help her discover the truth, but not before lives are endangered.
There’s much more going on in the book, about the art scene in Los Angeles, the rivalry among museum directors, the trade in illegal antiquities, Ray’s continuing investigation into his brother’s death, and the romantic attraction between Maggie and Ray. This all adds up to an entertaining mystery that gives the reader a fascinating peek into the art world.
Thanks to Netgalley, Maria Hummel, and Counterpoint Press for a copy of the book.