‘The Raphael Affair’ by Iain Pears
Part of my quest to read as many unread books on my shelves as possible before moving.
Iain Pears has for some time been near the top of my most respected authors list solely because he wrote one of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever read—An Instance of the Fingerpost. This book seemed like such a staggering accomplishment that I assumed that, in the style of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Instance was Pears’ first book. It seemed impossible that such a work could come from someone who had spent the previous decade writing light mystery novels.
And yet that is exactly what Iain Pears did. From 1990-2000, Pears wrote a series of novels featuring dogged English graduate student Jonathan Argyll solving various crimes related to art history. I was completely unaware of this series until I stumbled upon the first book, The Raphael Affair, in a used book store some years back. Stunned by this revelation regarding Pears’ career and a total fangirl for erudite mysteries in the vein of Arturo Pérez-Reverte, I immediately snatched it up.
To start off with, The Raphael Affair is no Instance of the Fingerpost. But it’s also not trying to be and it certainly succeeds at what it is: a light, entertaining mystery. As in all his books, Pears has clearly done his homework, so everything from the setting to the characters to the art historical background rings true.
However, I can’t say The Raphael Affair is terribly inventive, but it also hasn’t benefited by the release of the slew of painting-related mysteries and thrillers that followed in the wake of The Da Vinci Code (published, it should be noted, thirteen years after The Raphael Affair). At this point, the idea of having an academic expert help some form of local police with art theft seems exasperatingly hackneyed. Back in 1990, however, I suspect The Raphael Affair was actually quite unique amidst the bombast of Tom Clancy and his imitators.
Also problematic is the marketing of the series as being about Jonathan Argyll when he’s really just one-third of the team: the book is narrated equally by Argyll, an Italian police “general” named Bottando, and a staff researcher named Flavia. Of the trio, Flavia seems the most competent and Bottando is the one who ends up solving the case, while Argyll spends the book making a series of blunders and apologies. And he is somehow the protagonist? Perhaps this is something rectified in later books as Argyll becomes less incompetent, but at this point it actively annoyed me by the end of the book that he was so identified as our hero in the face of other characters obviously better suited to such a role.
That all said, The Raphael Affair was a snappy and twisty mystery, not too dark and not too light. And if art historical crimes are you thing, this is a great starting point. I have every faith in Pears as an author that the series won’t disappoint. Or, at the very least, that the series will continue on in the same style through all seven books.