An investigation of missing property takes a darker turn near Lake Superior in Dead Man’s Mistress, the next mystery in David Housewright’s award-winning McKenzie series.
Louise Wykoff is arguably the most recognizable woman living in Minnesota, known for her presence in over one hundred paintings by the late and brilliant Randolph McInnis. Louise, known better as “That Wykoff Woman,” was just a young apprentice when her intimate representation and the fact of the McInnis’s marriage caused rumors to fly—and Louise to hide away for decades.
All of McInnis's paintings are in museums or known private collections, until Louise confesses to having three more that no one has ever heard of—and now they've been stolen. Rushmore McKenzie, an occasional unlicensed private investigator, agrees to look into the theft. As he investigates, following clues that appear far too straightforward, he finds himself on the wrong side of the bars wondering if the trail might be deeper and darker than he’s been led to believe. Hours away from St. Paul, deep in the nature of Grand Marais, the truth seems murkier—and deadlier—than usual.
About the Author
DAVID HOUSEWRIGHT has won the Edgar Award and is the three-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award for his crime fiction, which includes the modern noir Twin Cities P.I. Mac McKenzie series (starting with A Hard Ticket Home). He is a past president of the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA). He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Read an Excerpt
She was arguably the most recognizable woman living in Minnesota. Even children attending the more progressive kindergarten classes knew her face, as well as other parts of her anatomy. Yet few people knew her actual name and even fewer realized that she had been living in Grand Marais for the past thirty-five years, including some of her neighbors. I didn't know these things myself until a friend sent me up there.
I knocked on her door. And waited. And knocked again. The door was pulled open and there she stood, dressed in jeans and a sweater, both faded with time, and bare feet on the hardwood floor despite the chill in the September air. Seeing her face up close and in person jolted me to the point where I couldn't speak aloud although my inner voice was screaming, It's her, it's her, it's her.
"Are you McKenzie?" she asked.
"Yes. Yes, I am."
"Please come in."
Her home was a small converted church that had been built on a hill overlooking the city's downtown and Lake Superior beyond. There was an oh-so-artistically carved sign in her front yard that read WYKOFF ART ACADEMY. I soon discovered that she had reserved the ground floor for the art classes she taught and for her own paintings that she sold in a gallery on the main drag. Most of them seemed to have Native American themes. Ojibwa, I guessed, since that was the tribe that lived in the area before the white settlers took over.
She beckoned me to a chair even as she perched on a stool across from it. I found myself looking up at her. There were worse sights.
She stared at me as if she were trying to peek inside my head before she spoke. "It was kind of you to come."
"Perrin Stewart says nice things about you."
"She says nice things about you as well."
"Can I get you anything?"
"No, thank you. I'm fine."
"I'm going to pour some coffee. Are you sure I can't offer you anything?"
She slipped off her stool and moved to a corner where a coffeemaker was set on a counter next to a small refrigerator. I seized the opportunity to look around. There were several workbenches and a dozen easels scattered throughout the large room. Most of the easels held canvases, some of them unfinished and some that looked finished to me, but what did I know? Other canvases were resting against the wall between two large windows. I wondered if any of them were hers. There was a white van parked outside that I could see through the windows. I wondered if that was hers, too. Unmarked vans made me nervous.
She returned to the stool and sipped her coffee from a mug adorned with wildflowers. Once again I found myself looking up at her. In the back of my mind I could hear the words my old man often repeated to me while growing up after Mom died of cancer — life is not fair. It's true of course. Some people get more. More beauty than you see in anyone else in the world. More time with their mothers.
"What do you know about me?" she asked.
"Only what everybody else knows."
"What does everyone else know?"
"You're That Wykoff Woman."
"Yes, my name forever an adjective. Call me Louise. What else?"
"Your face launched a thousand canvases."
"One hundred and thirty-three. Don't exaggerate."
"I was told you're in trouble."
"Trouble. Yes. Yes, I'm in trouble and hearing that was apparently enough for you to drive nearly five hours from the Twin Cities to see a woman you've never met?"
"Closer to four hours, actually. I have a fast car."
"I'm wondering if I can trust you."
"I've already broken several traffic laws on your behalf, so ... You trust Perrin Stewart at the City of Lakes Art Museum enough to tell her you need help. She trusts me. That's why I was sent. If you have a better option, I'll wish you luck, grab a couple of banana cream bismarks at World's Best Donuts, and be on my way. Later, I'll tell all of my friends that the Wykoff woman told me to call her Louise."
"Is that still a big deal after all these years?"
"The paintings don't age."
"No, I don't suppose they do. What exactly did you do for Perrin that she trusts you so much?"
Stewart must have already told her, my inner voice said. If she hadn't ...
"Something went missing from her museum," I said aloud. "I found the something and brought it back."
"You know, it was so long ago, I don't remember."
Louise leaned forward on the stool, her legs pressed firmly together, both hands clasping the coffee mug and resting it on her lap. Her toes curled over the bottom rung like she was trying to hold on.
"Something I own has gone missing, too," she said. "I would like it returned — without anyone knowing about it."
"I can only promise to do my best."
"You haven't asked what was stolen."
"You'll tell me when you're ready."
"I need to tell you a story first."
"If it's about Scenes from an Inland Sea, I already know."
"No, you don't. Nobody knows. Not even Mary Ann McInnis. But I'll start with what you do know, McKenzie. With what everyone knows. I'll start with Randolph McInnis freezing to death in a ditch ..."
* * *
Randolph McInnis was revered in Minnesota in the same way we revere Bob Dylan, Charles M. Schulz, Judy Garland, Herb Brooks, Hubert H. Humphrey, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not many Minnesotans reach international celebrity and when they do we build statutes to them. There's one of Mary Tyler Moore tossing her hat in the air on the Nicollet Mall even though she's from Brooklyn Heights, NY, solely because her fictional TV show was set in only slightly less fictional Minneapolis. Not that we have an inferiority complex about these things.
McInnis was our most famous artist, a so-called American Regionalist renowned worldwide for his paintings of small-town America and the Midwest — he's often mentioned in the same breath as Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Andrew Wyeth. What's more, he chose to live here even after hitting it big instead of moving to where the winters are more forgiving, unlike most of our famous and near famous relations. We loved him for that. We loved that he would hang out at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, visit high school art classes, and give seminars to the undergrads at the University of Minnesota. We loved that he once helped judge the art exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair, telling the entrants that his first painting when he was fifteen was rejected by the jury, so hang in there.
When he died in the early 1980s, most of us fell into a state of intense grief that just seemed to linger. We wouldn't feel a loss like that again until Prince died decades later.
What happened, McInnis was driving home alone from Duluth. It wasn't particularly late, only about 8:00 P.M. Only it was winter in Minnesota and on I-35 between Hinckley and Duluth there were long stretches of highway without a light to be seen except for those that flickered in the night sky. A patch of black ice and a deep ditch alongside the highway — McInnis skidded across one and plowed into the other. Along the way, he whacked his head against the steering wheel, knocking himself unconscious (a year later Minnesota would pass a mandatory seat belt law).
It wasn't the blow that killed him, though. It was the cold. Thirteen degrees below zero. His car was invisible from the highway and his lights quickly died along with his car battery. He wouldn't be found until the next morning.
"Over five thousand people attended his funeral at the St. Paul Cathedral," Louise said. "I was one of them. I sat way in the back. 'Course, no one knew who I was then. I wouldn't become famous until ..."
A month later, Mary Ann McInnis, Randolph's wife and business partner, gave the public its first glimpse of a suite of paintings that her husband had been working on before he was killed — Scenes from an Inland Sea.
McInnis had wanted to branch out, Mary Ann said, wanted to try something new. So, whenever he could find the time, he would drive alone to a studio he kept outside of Duluth. From there he would travel around Lake Superior, painting whatever interested him: Palisade Head near Silver Bay; the Split Rock Lighthouse just north of Castle Danger; Isle Royale near Grand Portage; the Sleeping Giant in Thunder Bay, Ontario; the Porcupine Mountains at Silver City, Michigan; the Sea Caves and Apostle Islands off Bayfield, Wisconsin.
"He was tired of painting rural postcards, that's what he told me," Louise said. "He wanted drama."
McInnis had worked at it for nearly five years. Some of his friends called it a prolonged midlife crisis. Yet there had been no secret about it; he had even given hints about his side project in interviews preceding his death. Yet when she went to close the studio and collect his work, Mary Ann discovered for the first time that two-thirds of the paintings and more than half of the drawings featured Louise Wykoff. McInnis had painted her during all four seasons. Sometimes she was outside and pictured against the background of the great lake and its environs. Sometimes she was inside sitting on a chair, looking out a window, leaning against a door frame, or lying across a bed. Sometimes she was clothed. More often she was not.
The reaction was sensational, to say the least. The art world was startled by McInnis's newfound visual and technical force. It described the Wykoff paintings in nineteenth-century terms, comparing them to The Four Seasons by Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole. It spoke of the remarkable collaboration of artist and model; Louise became one of the few people who was famous simply for being in a painting like Mona Lisa and Whistler's mother.
The rest of us — well, we wondered about the collaboration as well. People, the National Enquirer, even Time and Newsweek, openly questioned the nature of the relationship between the artist and That Wykoff Woman. It didn't help that McInnis was four decades older than his model. Mary Ann McInnis remained silent on the subject. At least in public. To her everlasting credit, so did Louise, who fled the paparazzi and refused to answer a single question about the paintings for thirty-five years.
"Randolph hired me as an assistant," Louise said. "This was right after I graduated with a BFA from the University of Minnesota — Duluth. He wanted someone to take care of the studio while he was away, take care of the paintings. Stretch canvas when he was here. Buy his paints. And his lunch. You know, assist. He also paid me to circle Lake Superior when he was gone and take photographs of anything and everything that interested me. I did this several times. I would show him the photos and if any of them interested him, we'd drive to the location and he'd decide if he wanted to paint it. It wasn't until the second year that he thought of painting me into the scenes. For perspective, he said. After a while, he started painting me instead of the lake."
"Okay," I said.
"Now you want to know, like everyone else wants to know — how close were we? You want to know about our relationship. Was it sexual?"
"I'm curious, like everyone else. But it's none of my business."
"No, it isn't. It's no one's business. Not even Mary Ann's."
"What I really want to know, though, is why I was asked to come up here. What trouble are you in?"
"I'm not sure 'trouble' is the correct word."
"Why don't you tell me about it and we'll decide together."
"After Randolph died, Mary Ann contacted me. Actually, I called her and told her that I was working as Randolph's assistant. She knew my name, of course, even though we had never met, because she was the one who signed and mailed the checks. Mary Ann took care of the business end of things, every last detail, Randolph said, so he could devote all of his energy to his art. He said it was a very good partnership. Lucrative, he said.
"Anyway, I asked her what she wanted me to do with the paintings and drawings. She seemed stunned when I told her how many there were. She knew what Randolph was doing but she didn't realize the extent until — McKenzie, I lied to her. When Mary Ann came to the studio, she found one hundred and thirty-three paintings and drawings. There were actually one hundred and thirty-six. I kept three of them for myself. I didn't steal them, McKenzie. Randolph gave them to me. He said he was nearly finished with the project and I should pick three of the paintings to keep for myself. Who knows, he said, they might even be worth something some day. That was on Friday. He died driving back to the Cities two days later."
"Where does the trouble part come into it?"
"Mary Ann doesn't know that I kept the paintings. I was afraid she'd be angry about — she didn't know about me, you see. Me being in the paintings. Won't the world be surprised when it finds out, Randolph would say. Well, it was surprised. Up 'til then he had been best known for painting landscapes, not portraits. Mary Ann was furious. She said — she said things to me that ... It doesn't matter. What matters is that I was afraid Mary Ann would demand that I return the paintings, so I didn't tell her I had them. I didn't tell anyone. I didn't show them to anyone. Not once in all these years."
"Again, where does the trouble —"
"They've been stolen."
"I don't know for sure. I kept them hidden upstairs. The last time I looked at them was about a week ago. I looked again — what day is it, Thursday? I looked Tuesday evening and they were missing."
"Was there any sign of a break-in?"
"None that I saw."
"Your security system?"
"McKenzie, I'm what they call a struggling artist. Sometimes I forget to lock the door."
"Does anyone know you sometimes forget to lock the door?"
Louise shook her head, but I could tell she wasn't sure.
"What else was taken?" I asked.
"Nothing that I know of."
"Just the paintings."
"Did you ask your students about it?"
"Did I ask my students if they stole paintings of the Wykoff woman? Of course not."
"Did you ask if they've seen anyone hanging around who shouldn't be hanging around?"
"No, because then I'd have to explain — McKenzie, no one knew the paintings were there, that they even existed."
"Obviously someone did."
"What I was thinking — McKenzie, it could happen this way, couldn't it? What I was thinking is that someone broke into my house and went upstairs because that's where I live, that's where my belongings are, and he was looking for something worth stealing and he found the paintings and recognized them for what they were and ... The News-Herald, the county newspaper, it reported just the other day that property crimes were way up, that burglaries had increased something like a hundred percent in the past few years."
"Yes, it could have happened that way."
"I want them back, McKenzie. I need them. They're all that I have of him. Of Randolph. That's why I can't call the police. I can't let anyone know that I have them. If Mary Ann knew she'd take them from me. I know she would and not just because they're worth — I don't know what they're worth. I don't know what a collector or a museum would pay for three undiscovered McInnis paintings. Mary Ann sold the entire collection for $34 million. Only that was in the eighties."
Back when a million bucks was real money, my inner voice reminded me.
"McKenzie, you need to know — it's not about the money. If I had wanted the money, I would have sold the paintings years ago. It's about — I don't know how to say it."
"That's okay. You don't have to."
"Will you help me?"
"I'd like to." I stood because I tend to think better on my feet and crossed the studio to one of the large windows. "I don't know if I can." The white van was still there. I thought I saw movement behind the driver's side window, but it could have been sunlight reflecting off the glass. "I'm going to need to get the answers to some questions and people will want to know why I'm asking them."
"What if — what if we pretended that they weren't Randolph's paintings? What if instead we told people that they were my paintings that were stolen?"
"Would someone steal your paintings?"
"I'm not completely unknown. I sell. I have paintings hanging in the City of Lakes, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and at the Duluth Art Institute. Plus galleries up and down the North Shore. The Cities, too. Critics have compared me to Eastman Johnson."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dead Man's Mistress"
Copyright © 2019 David Housewright.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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