Good art can make a person cry; great art can make a person kill.
Paire Anjou came to New York to be an artist, but thus far has only achieved an artist boyfriendthe enfant terrible of the art world, Derek Rosewood. On her way to his show, where his controversial paintings will be on display, Paire sees an older man on the sidewalk, looking into the window of the Fern Gallery, gazing intently at a painting, and sobbing. As Paire approaches him, the man stabs himself in the chest.
The painting that inspired the suicide is a one-off for the gallerythe last-known surviving work of a dissident Chinese artist named Qi. An empress, dressed in red, sits imperiously and stares out at the viewer. Paire is but one of the people who stare back, joined by hundreds, from around the world, flocking to the Fern Gallery to observe and obsess over the Empress. The Empress inspires lust and panic, rage and greed. When Paire starts digging into the backstory of the painting, and its artist, she unravels a tale of profound betrayal and a vengeance that spans generations.
She also sets in motion the painting's final heist, a swirling morass of bribery, theft, and murder, drawing Paire deeper and deeper into the underside of the art world, where the greatest works inspire the most vicious of crimes.
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About the Author
Alex Dolan is the author of THE EUTHANIST (Diversion Books, 2015). He is an executive committee member of the San Francisco Bay Area's Litquake festival, and a member of the International Thriller Writers Debut Authors program and Sisters in Crime. In addition, he has recorded four music albums, and received his master's degree from Columbia University.
Read an Excerpt
The Empress of Tempera
By Alex Dolan
Diversion BooksCopyright © 2016 Alex Dolan
All rights reserved.
Paire Anjou dreamed of killing Katie Novis. She sometimes imagined a bomb annihilating Katie in conflagrant florets, but in the end the world ushered her out with a quiet shuffle of papers.
Katie was a mousy girl from a family of criminals. Ripe for ruination. Ridicule had made her meek, and an easy target for bullies. On the nature channel, Katie would have been the wildebeest in the rear that couldn't haul ass fast enough. Paire Anjou couldn't stand her weakness.
Everyone in Abenaki, Maine, knew about the Novises. Families buzzed about them at their kitchen tables. They swapped gossip in churches and dog parks. In Abenaki, the Novis trial was more delicious than O.J.
Lake and Cissy Novis had tarnished their daughter Katie's name while she was still an infant. Local Mainers developed hardened opinions of the girl before she learned to talk. By the time Katie reached high school, gossip clung to her like a remora. The few who dared befriend her were still ashamed to be seen with her in public, possibly worried that the same pestilence that had laid her family to waste would somehow glom onto them.
Katie hated her family name, and thus Paire did as well. Hearing the name, Novis, made Katie feel small, which wasn't far from the truth, because physically, she had been petite. At twelve a cornstalk, and by fourteen a cornstalk with boobs.
Today, Paire smudged Katie Novis from existence. She as good as buried her in an unmarked plot. And she did it all from inside a courtroom.
The judge was an old man with a frosted, groomed beard and Benjamin Franklin bifocals. He didn't smile easily, and his rudimentary questions sounded more like accusations.
When he asked Katie Novis why she wished to change her name, Paire Anjou replied, "I'm an artist." It was the simplest explanation.
The judge stewed over the new name. He made her spell it, perhaps wondering if she was pranking the court system, and had somehow made it past gatekeepers who were supposed to ferret out this sort of bullshit. But he approved it just the same. In less than ten minutes, Paire received a notarized copy of a document printed with her new name. She hadn't been this happy in years. Maybe ever.
Drunk from endorphins, Paire bounce-stepped across the park as if she'd beaten cancer. Officially — even legally — she had disappeared Katie Novis. In the hardly notable void that Katie had left, she'd created a new girl. Paire Anjou. This was her transformation. The butterfly burst from the cocoon in a patchwork of tropical greens and yellows, drawing stares from strangers as her chin tilted toward the toothy horizon of flat rooftops along the perimeter of Union Square.
It was April, and stray cherry trees blossomed in the park. They would drip pink shags and shed themselves bare a few weeks from now. Paire was comfortable in her dress, and remembered that weather this warm wouldn't hit Maine for another month. Here in New York she felt a sense of grandeur, both in her new name and in the city itself, where after years of eyeballing photos of Manhattan, even the gum-stained sidewalks took on an air of celebrity. Her imagination sparkled at the possibilities.
Paire acted like a tourist, but she might as well have been one, because she'd lived in New York for only about two years. Closing in on the end of her second school year. None of this felt like home yet, but that was good. Home was where people javelined Katie Novis with insults, or stuffed dead lobsters into her locker to shame her.
Manhattanites didn't know about Katie Novis. Paire had adopted her new name since she'd entered the Manhattan School of Art and Design, known as MSAD to the student body. In New York, Paire could lose herself in the endless crop of people. Every morning a new batch of faces. They smiled at Paire because she was pretty. They admired her petite pixie figure, slim all around except for flipper hands and feet, and grapefruit breasts. She wasn't too skinny here. Her nose wasn't hooked. In Abenaki she'd learned to round her shoulders to diminish her chest. In New York she pinched together her shoulder blades to push it out. In the city, she felt both cherished and anonymous.
During her time here, Paire had changed the way she dressed, from skin-sheltering black tees and jeans to wild, form-fitting dresses that let her gams loose. Today she wore a body-hugging dress, chosen because the green in the fabric matched her favorite painting of all time, Portrait of a Young Girl in a Green Dress, from her favorite artist, deco painter Tamara de Lempicka. Within a few months of matriculation at MSAD, she had dyed her hair a deep burgundy and styled it in robust curls, resembling a 1940s pinup girl. She'd taught herself how to smile, something Katie rarely did in Maine. This sounds like an overstatement, but in truth, she'd had to practice in a mirror until she could roll her lips appropriately, so she didn't expose her teeth like a bonobo. Instead of the lemon-puckers she was used to in Abenaki, people smiled back. Born again as a stranger among all of these friendly foreigners, she finally felt normal.
Paire guarded her old name like it was a nuclear launch code. No one here could know about Katie Novis. She never said her name aloud. A professor had called roll under her old name before she'd swapped it out, and Paire simply ignored her as the woman repeated the name over and over again in a reverberant lecture hall.
The history of Katie Novis was hard to find, but the intrepid web researcher could root it out. If someone searched for her, they might uncover a few tabloid-quality articles from her parents' trial. The articles were all published before the internet blew up, but sometimes enthusiasts scanned the print versions and posted them on true crime blogs.
For the most part, she had been able to keep that name off tongues in New York. But when she signed her lease, she had to use her old name. Until one month ago, she'd lived in Park Slope with a couple named Hayden and Emily. They were in their mid-twenties and both worked in digital advertising. They had been roommates in a two-bedroom for two years, until they got drunk and slept together. As a couple they only occupied a single bedroom, and they rented the other out, usually to students like Paire who would tolerate a breadbox just for the privilege of bedding down in the greater metro. Eventually, the two were curious enough to Google their sublessee. During a dispute over who was leaving the cordless phone off the charger and draining the battery, Hayden had blurted it out: "Lobster Baby."
Paire had moved out that evening.
For three nights she stayed at a bedbuggy hostel, until Derek Rosewood invited her to move into his apartment. They'd only been dating nine months, but it was her longest romantic relationship. Paire didn't know how deeply connected she felt to Rosewood but she jumped at the chance. This was another opportunity in a chain of new experiences. She had a boyfriend who was impressed with her, enough to invite her to live with him.
This meant having someone to dote on. So after she finished disposing of Katie Novis, she showed her devotion to Derek Rosewood by heading to the Fern Gallery, which was getting ready to showcase his new exhibit.
Rosewood was an artist, like her. But bigger, like she wanted to be.
Moreover, he understood why Paire would want to change her identity. He stressed how important personal freedom was for an artist. "Creativity springs from individuality, and individuality springs from independence," he'd told her. "In the end, autonomy is your most valuable possession." She felt like he knew what made her gears turn. Maybe that was what made him special.
She walked down Eighteenth. From down the block, she saw a man, just a speck at that distance, looking through the window of the Fern Gallery at the artwork inside. All alone on a quiet street full of residential brownstones. Other than the Fern, there was nothing to warrant gawking, unless someone decided to change clothes without the blinds drawn.
From the end of the block, she snapped a photo of him with her phone.
The Fern Gallery had about the same size and reputation of the thicket of art spaces in Chelsea, but it sat as a remote outpost in the Flatiron District, fairly close to MSAD. While no street in New York was ever barren, this stretch of Eighteenth didn't attract the cattle crowds that were half a block away on Seventh Avenue. This made the gallery seem more exclusive, and less like a tourist attraction. Because it was so close to the school, the gallery occasionally curated shows that might be popular among the students. A buzzworthy installation of Derek Rosewood made sense. Rosewood was supposed to be there to help with the installation, and Paire was curious to see which piece the gallery would hang in the front window.
Derek Rosewood was best known as a guerrilla artist. Paire had seen his work a decade ago without realizing it was his. He had risen to fame largely through a graffiti experiment called the WANTED campaign. Throughout major American cities, the campaign slapped stickers on lampposts, street signs, bathroom stalls, subway turnstiles, and any vacant public space where a two-by-two-inch sticker might affix. The sticker depicted a mug shot of actor Paul Reubens, better known as Pee-wee Herman, after he had been arrested for masturbating in a movie theater in 1991. Reubens was stylized in a black-and-white graphic, making his expression seem even more forlorn than the actual police mug shot. Above the photo, the sample caption read WANTED, the block letters reminiscent of Barbara Kruger's sans serif mock advertising type. Before she'd even met Rosewood, Paire found one of these in a coffeehouse in Portland. Later, they spread to Abenaki. A student had pasted one to Katie Novis's locker, where it sat askew like a lost starfish for most of her senior year, its relation to the taboo topic of masturbation no doubt intended to be its own insult.
The Guantanamo Bay detention camp had inspired Rosewood's WANTED campaign. The prison was established in 2002, and the artist's sticker campaign started a few months later. Rosewood wanted to spar with the government about how easy it was to vilify public figures. The night she first met Rosewood, he got tipsy and, to impress her, spoke as if he were giving an interview. He said, "We live in a country where people can fall under suspicion and disappear. This isn't Soviet Russia. It's right here, happening right under our noses. I wanted to remind people how easy it can be to have the world turn against you, like it did for Reubens. And I wanted to make people laugh. Humor gives people the courage to deal with their fears." He added, "I've got nothing against Paul Reubens. Pee-wee Herman gave me my boyhood."
She liked Rosewood, and wanted to impress him back by being thoughtful. "Are you trying to send a message or provoke discussion?"
"I want people to think for themselves, not tell them what to think."
As Paire closed in on the Fern, the man outside the gallery grew into a trim hunchback silhouette. He hadn't moved since Paire had first seen him. His rigidity interested her, and she took another photo of him as she walked closer, confident that he wouldn't catch her stealing his image. A timeless quality wafted from him, as if he were ancient steel that had been forged and aged in the elements. Like he'd always been on this sidewalk. Drawn by whatever was on the other side of that window.
For days, Paire had been aching to know what piece they were going to put in that window. Rosewood and the gallery had simmered through a disagreement on what the window should display. "They'll take it wrong. They always do," he'd said after he bickered with them on the phone.
The Fern Gallery wanted to hang a piece called HERO. He had completed the piece in January 2007, just after Saddam Hussein had been executed. Rendered on the silkscreen with his typical propaganda poster aesthetic, the graphic showed Perseus holding up a crudely severed gorgon head. Except instead of Medusa's, it was Hussein's. Same type treatment as always. Unlike the WANTED campaign, this particular piece had a clear message. The artist wished to shame any ghoulish Madame Defarges who took glee from the dictator's hanging. Of course, that last bit was Paire's analogy. Rosewood had never read Dickens.
Rosewood was sure his intent was obvious, but people misinterpreted the piece. For HERO, rednecks and war-whoopers appropriated the image as jingoistic icon. HERO bumper stickers rode the backs of trucks next to hunting racks and Confederate flags. A conservative news network purchased rights to the image, and showed it before a segment that covered American military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Rosewood never divulged his sentiments on the record, he was ashamed of how his vision had been reinterpreted.
As she approached, Paire got a better look at the old man hunched by the glass. He was frail, with wispy white hair and sunken cheeks. He wore a charcoal suit that looked clean but had probably fit him better ten years ago, and now hung loosely around the arms and shoulders. When he finally moved, he rubbed his mouth slowly, possibly trying to comprehend the meaning of the art in the window. If they'd ended up hanging HERO in the window, possibly he was just shocked by the severed head. The way his jaw hinged, Paire thought he might be crazy — there were certainly enough crazy folks in the city. But he definitely wasn't homeless. His suit had been pressed, his wing tips polished. She hesitated before taking the next shot, this time without focusing, and she felt slightly guilty afterward. Something was wrong with him — she could tell that much even from this distance.
Instead of HERO, Rosewood had wanted to install a new piece called TRUTH HURTS. It was a graphic portrait of Edward Snowden, the former NSA computer pro who had spilled surveillance tidbits to the press. The press were still talking about Snowden, so Rosewood thought it would be timely. It would ignite the sort of discussion he wanted to create. Rosewood didn't have a message he was pushing with this one, so there would be no misinterpretation of the artist's intent. "Even though, between you and me, I side with Snowden," he'd confessed to Paire from the next pillow. "In another country, at another time, I'd be the one the government would throw under the bus."
The old man took a shuffling step toward the window, close enough to breathe on it. His face quivered, but Paire couldn't read his expression. It might have been sadness or anger. Whatever it was, he seemed volatile. Were this a younger man, Paire might have thought he was dangerous. But he was so delicate and moved so slowly, she kept moving toward him. She noticed how loud her heels pounded on the pavement, and she lightened her footsteps so she wouldn't jar the man from his reverie. He placed a palm on the window, the way prison guests might try to console inmates during visiting hours.
Paire wondered if TRUTH HURTS hung in the window. She couldn't see from this angle. The way the old man stared, she wondered if he might be fighting to recognize the man in the piece. Snowden was a common-looking white man with a trimmed goatee and the semi-rimless spectacles one saw on every other tech professional in New York. In fact, her ex-roommate Hayden wore glasses like that. The TRUTH HURTS canvas was big, bigger than HERO. When it stood against Rosewood's studio wall, it rose to Paire's nipples. Borrowing some of Warhol's palette, the portrait pigmented Snowden in lavender and gold, giving him the superstar treatment. Given the style, Paire wondered if the man might vaguely recognize the face, but not be able to place it.
Paire wondered if this man might work for the Fern Gallery. Maybe he was some kind of curator emeritus they brought on to make sure the installation had the appropriate fêng shui, or at least that the corners weren't sagging. Now within speaking distance, Paire opened her mouth, ready to say something to him. She might have called out a friendly hello, since she was headed to his gallery anyway. But the man's face changed. His eyes fixed on the glass, the wrinkles around them deepened, and his face collapsed around a deep frown. A half a block away, his squinting had stuck her as curiosity. This close, it was clear that the old man was fighting back emotion. He started crying. His small hunched back folded, and he cradled his face in one hand while the other braced himself against the window.
She had never been so affected by Rosewood's campy graphics, nor had she ever seen anyone who wept for them. If HERO hung in the window, she supposed Saddam Hussein's head could have stirred up some emotion. Maybe this was a veteran. He was too old for Desert Storm, even for Vietnam. Maybe he'd served in Korea. Saddam Hussein might have been enough of a trigger to remind him of his combat days, and how he couldn't escape the violence, even when passing by an art gallery. She wanted to comfort him. However, she'd learned the hard way that running up to someone on the street in New York was always treated as a potential threat, even when it was someone like Paire, who weighed just north of one hundred pounds. Because of her own background in Maine, she tended to mirror the emotions of those who were traumatized. She saw someone sad, and her own heart sank.
Excerpted from The Empress of Tempera by Alex Dolan. Copyright © 2016 Alex Dolan. Excerpted by permission of Diversion Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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"Dark and sinewy, topical and timeless, laced with rich characterization and gallows humor, it showcases Dolan as a thriller writer to watch and follow." Louis Bayard, author of Roosevelt's Beast
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Katie Novis legally changes her name to Paire Anjou because her family’s name is notorious for a horrible criminal event. She’s very artistic and bohemian in taste and thinks her life in New York as a new artist is bound to be new and refreshingly clean of nefarious doings. Her life with her boyfriend Derek Rosewood is exciting as he is a graffiti-guerrilla style artist who wants to both shock viewers and awaken them to social consciousness about troubling issues. There’s an element of crime in the way he places his paintings but nothing that causes harm to anyone. That’s all about to change for this young, vibrant couple. Paire is unfortunate enough to observe a man staring into a storefront window of Fern Gallery. She is entranced when looking at the painting the man is staring at so intensely he doesn’t even notice her presence. But all of a sudden, before she can do anything about it, this man quickly dies. The turmoil that follows is almost sidelined by shock and Paire’s realization that this painting is so intense as to enchant the viewer to obsessive looking. This is the story then of “The Empress Xiao Zhe Yi, Seated” by a Chinese artist Qi. It turns out this is the one remaining painting from his entire life that is being shown for the first time. The woman in the painting actually is supposed to represent a real woman, but the reader will discover her real story, a tale of bribery, greed and obsession that pulls in a financier, a gallery owner and his lover, Paire and Derek, and the artist’s sculptor daughter. Although the characters are rather stereotypical, the reactions of viewers to this painting are both exaggerated and yet mesmerizing in their intensity. One wonders how viewers could faint or become so enamored of this woman that it elicits their most lustful feelings? Deny it but admit it’s temporarily mesmerizing! One wonders if this is how some viewers saw “The Mona Lisa” when it was first displayed to the public? The plot will progress to attempts of theft and the effects will be disastrous for several characters. Paire discovers that she is not so different from her family, a background that is also gradually revealed, and that her lover’s innocent acts shock even him into realizing how art reflects life’s most noble but also baser passionate aspects. The Empress of Tempera is a great read that will move a large, wide audience and rightfully so! Nicely crafted, Alex Dolan!
A piece of fine art is at the center of a whole series of evolving mysteries. As the story progresses, tiny revelations build to a stunning climax. New York City is on display as the stage for most activity. The many plot threads keep the reader interested but not overwhelmed. The characters are developed as a part of the ongoing mysteries. The role of art as a stimulus to many kinds of action comes across throughout the story.
The Empress of Tempera by Alex Dolan is a highly recommended thriller/mystery set in the art world of NYC and challenges the value and meaning of art. In the opening of The Empress of Tempera, Katie Novis legally changes her name to Paire Anjou. Paire, who is attending the Manhattan School of Art and Design, MSAD, adopts her new name In an attempt to distance herself from her past spent in Maine being tormented by classmates over a terrible act her parents committed. Now, legally Paire and the girlfriend of an up and coming graffiti/guerilla type artist, Derek Rosewood, she is headed to the Fern Gallery where Rosenwood has an opening exhibit being installed. Outside the gallery window is an old man sobbing, staring through the window. He fatally stabs himself in front of Paire while staring at the painting "The Empress Xiao Zhe Yi, Seated" by Chinese artist Qi. It is the only known work by Qi on exhibit anywhere, and may be the only known existing work by him. Paire ends up getting a job at the Fern Gallery where she is obsessed with the painting along with the many others who stop to stare at it. Rosenwood's wealthy benefactor is the supremely obnoxious Abel Kasson. Kasson, who arranged for the exhibit at the gallery, is also obsessed with the painting but for other reasons. Paire begins to accompany Rosenwood on some of his illegal guerilla installations, which eventually leads them to even more dangerous stunts. The writing is good and the plot moves quickly after a slow start. Although some of the characters seem more one dimensional caricatures than flesh and blood people, Dolan sets up the story, describing what captivates and intrigues connoisseurs about Qi and "The Empress Xiao Zhe Yi, Seated," and then keeps the action moving swiftly to an almost inevitable conclusion. The risks people will take for art, to create it or possess it, is captured. Dolan does make a few leaps in the plot and leaves explaining what Paire's parents actually did until the very end, where it loses it's impact after all the other action that has taken place. Still, The Empress of Tempera will grab your attention and hold it to the end. Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.