The Death Artist of Jonathan Santlofer's debut novel is literally that, a serial killer who is staging his murders after great paintings by famous artists. Unfortunately for the victims, the paintings selected allow for some of the most gruesome and horrific killings possible -- including, in one case, the skinning of a victim.
Kate McKinnon Rothstein ("Stretch" to the girls at St. Anne's) is the person who investigates the murders. She is a well-drawn character who allows the author to freely move through the milieux of the art world and higher society and the lower mean streets of New York City, for Kate is a former NYC detective working in Queens married to Richard Rothstein, a multimillionaire and art collector. She is, therefore, a woman familiar with both societal worlds.
She is also an art lover who herself has written a book on art as well as hosted a television show to discuss great artworks of the past. This familiarity with art makes her realize what police have not: that many gruesome murders occurring in the city, despite their outward dissimilarity, are in fact the work of one person. The reason the murders appear to be the work of different killers is that each murder is done differently so as to better stage or imitate a work of art. Once that modus opperandi is seen, it becomes clear that all of the horrific killings are the work of one person, a person dubbed by the media as the "Death Artist".
The book reads like a knowledgeable police procedural novel, surprising because the author is not an ex-cop turned author, but rather an artist, apparently of some renown. It is unusual for an artist to switch media from the pictorial to the written word since painting and writing require different skill sets, although it is not totally unknown. Van Gogh's letters are published, read almost as literature, and Degas tried his hand at poetry as well. It more commonly works the other way around, with writers trying their hand at drawing and painting, sometimes illustrating their own books. Kipling did this with his Just So Stories. Still, in either case, it is a rarity.
Santlofer paints with words an unflattering picture of the people in the art world, depicting artists, collectors and museum curators as mostly vain, neurotic and self-serving. Art is simply a means to an end for most of them. What they really want is fame and/or money. If that distaste is genuine on the author's part, it may explain in part his deciding to write instead of paint.
The Death Artist is well written (although some may be a put off by the author's habit of avoiding use of the word "and", substituting a semicolon instead -- what's wrong with poor little "and"?), a good suspenseful read. Ultimately the novel concludes in a somewhat predictable fashion, but by then it has offered the reader a good terror-ride along the way. Those readers who enjoy mystery, suspense, and the Hannibal Lecter series, should be in clover with this book. Hopefully there will be more Kate McKinnon Rothstein tales in the future.