The Art Thief's opening scene pulls a nifty trick for thriller lovers by setting up a potential victim in a Roman church—a sleeping priest, at that—and then leaving him untouched while the real prey, a Caravaggio altarpiece, is snatched under cover of darkness. It's a shame the book never sustains the same kind of peering-through-windows perspective or nimble pacing again.
While Italian police take over the Caravaggio case, in Paris, a painting by Russian modernist Kasimir Malevich disappears from the Malevich Society, just before a very similar painting is due to be auctioned off at Christie's in London. Curators, mercenary "loss prevention" experts, and a Scotland Yard detective hunt for the missing works of art with just a five-character graffito and sightings of a band of suited men around London as clues. Between the twin heists, the novel slows to a crawl as real-life art expert Noah Charney introduces a dozen characters (including two art-history lecturers) in the first 30 pages and brings in even more throughout the book.
But the large cast doesn't hobble Charney's debut novel nearly so much as the clumsy way he pushes his characters around to deliver his information, squeezing in humanizing details only when stalling the narrative in an attempt at suspense. Some of the subsequent twists are telegraphed so far in advance that the settings in which they appear act as speed bumps, brimming not with potential clues, but with irrelevant digressions like a vintage 1997 discussion of the Internet. Chapter endings clearly intended to be gripping land with a clunk, like this one: "What was it that he had seen, that jogged him? He turned slowly in a full circle. Then he realized."
Charney's meandering dialogue obscures the urgent, many-pronged search for the missing paintings, to the point where it's easy to forget who's searching for what. A string of nearly identical scenes in the middle of the novel doesn't make those distinctions any easier, and drains momentum from a surprisingly good third-act twist. Charney can make an obscure Russian artist important, but he can't explain his criminals as well.