"Provenance" is a plastic pastiche of a made-for-Hollywood thriller set in the opulence of the international art world. The main plot, long and convoluted, centers on a cache of masterpieces looted from Jewish collectors by agents of Goering at the outset of the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940. A peripheral plot involves dealer manipulations and financial intrigue in the art marketplace and the subversive takeover of an art investment consortium by the wiliest and most powerful dealer of them all.
Thrown in are all sorts of props, cliches and set pieces -- those that make for box office: violent killings, unusual premeditated murders and maimings, rape, high-class hookers, drugs, prurient and explicit sex, robberies and burglaries, automobile chases, blackmail and bribery, and many million-dollar deals.
Written in breathless short takes with predictable transparent dialogue, the myriad scenes are tailored to titilate the reader's snobbism and voyeurism. In New York we hopscotch from hobnobbing with the art elite in a prestigious gallery to three-way sex after a group Jacuzzi in a penthouse, to a gala auction at Sotheby Parke-Bernet. A second rigged auction takes place in London, where ambiences also leapfrog among a Pall Mall gentlemen's club to a suite in Claridge's and chambers in Albany. Hotels are "the most exclusive" everywhere: in Paris there is the Crillon and yes, even a flashback to J. P. Morgan's luxurious suite at the Ritz. In Rome there are guided tours through private areas of the Vatican and the catacombs as well as the fanciest bordello. A Lear jet ride . . . the casino at Monte Carlo . . . big business with a gnome in a Swiss bank. The jet-set characters in this sketchy series of mini-travelogues, naturally, are surrounded only by the "best" brand names, whether in art, furnishings, vehicles, tobacco, or cognac -- even down to a "Mason and Pearson hairbrush."
The hero is orphaned and French-born, an art security consultant with a black belt in karate -- and single and juvenile at age 39. He sets out to discover the truth about his family and their missing collection with the timely assistance of the Corsican equivalent of the Mafia. Others in the cast are a vicious S.S. major-turned-Vatican monsignor (how this transformation was managed the reader never learns) and his gang of murdering priests, several corrupt conniving art dealers, their families and their connections.
The writing is not just slick, it is cheap and misleading. People enthuse and busy themselves with "the drapes." To flesh out the lurid plot -- and, I suppose, for some flavor of authenticity -- McDonald has inserted thumbnail cameo portraits of certain recognizable art-world personalities (often employing trick variations of their real names), as well as snippets of fact and innuendo concerning actual scandals and suspected corruption in the art trade. But racing along with his celluloid narrative, he makes so many errors of detail and reasoning that even these do not ring true. For example: Art funds are not listed among the stock questions in the Times; it makes no sense to claim that Picasso authenticated fakes in order to keep up the market for his paintings, since fakes destroy the market. Who ever heard of a "loft" apartment on Gramercy Park overlooking midtown Manhattan? Can you imagine one crooked dealer with a straight face saying to another: "God knows, there's no regulation in this business." The Dakota lobby is not "ornate" by New York standards, Phenobarbital is not a tranquilizer, and in chess, who has ever heard of the "Wathier Variation of the Rook's Gambit declined," much less beaten an opponent with it?
This nonsense would not be worthy of review if it did not reveal so much about what is happening to book publishing. That a major book club has chosen it as a main selection gives some inkling of its estimation of reader credulity and basic intelligence. This reader is left with an awful taste of ketchupy blood on masses of popcorn with a smattering of quick couturier culture -- all in all, fast-food junk.