Originally brought out in England eight years ago as part of the Collier Crime Club series, this novel, which Morrow touts as "a rediscovered gem," is one of two books Follett wrote under the pseudonym Zachary Stone. (The other, "Paper Money," is also slated for reissue.)
Follett has written a new, brief introduction to the present edition of "The Modigliani Scandal," which seems to indicate that he conceived of "Modigliani" as a biggie. He tells us, for instance, that he set out "to write a new kind of novel, one that would reflect the subtle subordination of individual freedom to more powerful machinery."
He acknowledges, however, that what he did produce was "a lighthearted crime story in which an assortment of people, mostly young, get up to a variety of capers, none of which turns out quite as expected." Critics, Follett says, called the book "fizzy," and fizzy, he now admits, is exactly what it is.
But that's okay. It's especially okay if you consider "Modigliani" a sort of textbook for students of the blockbuster. And why not? Students of Shakespeare have their "Lear" and "Hamlet" sources to ponder. Similarly, Melville scholars turn to "Typee," not because it's any good, but because it might shed some light on "Moby Dick." In "The Modigliani Scandal" we glimpse in sort of a larval stage the Follett touches we have come to expect.
We could, for instance, read this book merely for the way the characters and their actions all come neatly together at the end. Follett is a master plotter and even in this early stage of his career was able to keep his people near-missing each other throughout. And that's not easy, because then, as now, his cast was enormous.
We have a female doctoral student, Dee, and her boyfriend; artists Peter and Mitch engaged in a "masterpiece race"; Dee's uncle Charles, an art dealer; his client, Lord Cardwell; Cardwell's daughter Sarah; and Sarah's wimpy husband Julian, soon to be an art dealer himself. Then there's Sammy, a movie star with a lot of social conscience, and her new boyfriend Tom. There's Lipsey, too, a private eye.
Despite this quantity, Follett maintains quality, which is to say he gives us enough about the characters for us to want to know what befalls them. He does this often by using insightful and memorable tags. One character, we are told, is "aggressively working class," while another has "an emery-board voice."
Follett also provides terrific lessons in oblique characterization -- a priest who "seemed edgy in Dee's presence, as anyone who had taken a vow of chastity was entitled to be" tells us how attractive Dee is much more effectively than straight description might have. And early Follett is as impish as late. This same Dee, when faced with a stack of dusty paintings to clean and not a handkerchief in sight, simply removes her undies and goes at the canvases.
This novel is fun, all right, but not as much fun as it could have been. Those who buy expecting a "new" and therefore mature Ken Follett book, will be disappointed indeed.
On the bright side, internal evidence suggests that the book was written a few years before its 1977 publication date. Characters wear bell-bottom jeans and platform shoes; they listen to Hendrix. Could it be that even Ken Follett -- a brand name! -- had to shop the book around before a publisher bit? Blockbuster scholars take note, and if you aspire to be blockbuster writers, yes, take heart!