This short little book is written by a reporter, so it has a very newspaper-story feel to it. That doesn’t make it any less interesting, but anyone expecting a bit of narration or more than the most essential of outside details is in for a surprise. This is a historical account, like what monks would have written on parchment paper in the old days, only from the eyes of a totally cynical reporter of atheistic bent, who exhibits the best and worst traits of his kind (more on that later).
PLOT: The story itself deserves a place in the halls of the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction museum. A painting by Vermeer is stolen from a house in the Irish countryside. Actually, several paintings, not all by Vermeer, are stolen, but this painting is special. Its called “Woman Writing A Letter”, and its worth many millions of dollars. What is especially interesting, at this point, is the process that the criminals go through to hide the loot. After being recovered, the painting is stolen again, from the same house. Then the son of the original detective who solved the first case is called in, and its starts to get really interesting. All kinds of surprises await, and the author fills in the “boring” parts of the story with art theft trivia (including details on the recently-resolved Munich “The Scream” theft).
POSITIVES: What I found most interesting in this book were all the processes. The author is clearly representative of the best and worst in today’s reporting (at least as I see it). He describes everything in vibrant detail, sweeping the reader up into the thrill of the chase; yet, when the chase is over, there is no interest. The end is just sort of, oh-by-the-way-this-is-how-it-all-came-out-good-bye. The author gives intimate, fascinating details into how the criminals did their work, and while its fascinating to see the details of operations on both sides, yet, one has to wonder, how much of these details (on people still living and active in the British police) is really responsible to disclose. The process of criminal distribution of “loot”, the process of police investigations into art theft, the process of art restoration, to the process of creating art, and finally, most revealingly, the process of trying to protect those who enforce the law from being intimidated by criminal threats. On one hand, the myriad of ways that the police hunt for these criminals (and the criminals try to thwart them) is fascinating to read about. I had to wonder, though, as the author went into a brief delineation of the persecution faced by policemen trying to catch the ringleaders, whether it was worth it.
Its also the story of what happens to art that is stolen. The way art is used as collateral for drugs (a lot like a government keeping a stockpile of gold to back up its currency) is utterly fascinating. The author also gives the political background, showing how the Irish have been rather criminally inclined for centuries.
NEGATIVES: I would not recommend this as a book to little kids, if only for that one chapter. We learn what kinds of intimidation techniques criminals use to try and make police back off. Its not so much gross as creepy; scanning newspaper articles for the names of officers involved, and using that information to track down individual policeman’s family. The thought of some criminal coming up to a policeman and naming for him all his kids and what time they left school that day… is just not necessary for a child to know about, okay? The crimes are almost exclusively theft, and while the masterminds are accused of doing A LOT of things, there is only one off-hand notice of anything more repulsive than that, and it is dealt with very tactfully. For me, it caused a lot of deep thinking about the issues faced by our media and the police. Also, the end is very blah, rather boring.
In essence, this is a book that is to be read for the chase. Anyone who likes thrilling detective story should be enthralled by “the Irish Game”