Read The Genius Online

Authors: Jesse Kellerman

Tags: #Psychological fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Art galleries; Commercial, #New York (N.Y.), #General, #Psychological, #Suspense, #Drawing - Psychological aspects, #Psychological aspects, #Thrillers, #Mystery fiction, #Fiction, #Drawing

The Genius

BOOK: The Genius
5.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



The Genius



The sinister and provocative thriller from crime writing’s freshest new voice.


Ethan Muller is struggling to establish his reputation as a dealer in the cut-throat world of contemporary art when he stumbles onto a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: in a decaying New York slum, an elderly tenant named Victor Cracke has disappeared, leaving behind an enormous trove of original artwork. Nobody can say anything for certain about Cracke except that he came and went in solitude for nearly forty years, his genius hidden and unacknowledged.


All that is about to change.


So what if, strictly speaking, the art doesn’t belong to Ethan? He can sell it—and he does just that, mounting a wildly successful show. Buyers clamor. Critics sing. Museums are interested, and Ethan’s photo looks great in The New York Times.


And that’s when things go to hell.


Suddenly the police are interested in talking to him. It seems that Victor Cracke had a nasty past, and the drawings hanging in the Muller Gallery have begun to look a lot less like art and a lot more like evidence.


Is Cracke a genius? A murderer? Both? Is there a difference? Sucked into an investigation four decades cold, Ethan will uncover a secret legacy of shame and death, one that touches horrifyingly close to home.



Jesse Kellerman


Copyright © 2008
by Jesse Kellerman







To Gavri







True art is always found where we least expect it, where nobody is thinking about it or saying its name. Art hates to be recognized and greeted by name. It flees instantly.

Jean Dubuffet
…a mirror of smoke, cracked and dim in which to judge himself…
— The Book of Odd Thoughts 13:15




• 1 •



In the beginning, I behaved badly. I’m not going to lie to you, so allow me to get that on the table right away: while I would like to believe that I redeemed myself later, there’s no question that—in the beginning at least—I lacked a certain purity of purpose. That’s putting it mildly. If we’re being honest, let’s be honest: I was motivated by greed and, more important, by narcissism: a sense of entitlement that runs deep in my genes and that I can’t seem to shake, no matter how ugly it makes me feel, some of the time. Part of the job description, I suppose, and part of the reason I’ve moved on. Know thyself.

Christ. I promised myself that I’d make an effort to avoid sounding like a pretentious prick. I ought to be more hardboiled; I’d like to be. I don’t think I have it in me. To write in clipped sentences. To employ gritty metaphor in the introduction of sultry blondes. (My heroine’s a brunette, and not the especially sultry kind; her hair isn’t jet-black and dripping; it’s medium chestnut and, more often than not, pragmatically tied back, workmanlike ponytails or flyaway buns or stashed behind her ears.) I can’t do it, so why bother trying?

We each get one story to tell, and we have to tell it the way that comes naturally. I don’t carry a gun; I don’t get into car chases or fistfights. All I can do is write down the truth, and truthfully, I might be kind of a pretentious prick. That’s all right. I can live with that.

As Sam is fond of saying
It is what it is

Generally, I don’t agree. A more appropriate rule of thumb—for my life, my line of work, and this story—might be
It is what it is, except when it isn’t, which is most of the time
. I still don’t know the whole truth, and I doubt I ever will.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

All I mean is that, having lived a long time in a world of illusions, a costume-party world, wink-wink and knowingness and quote marks around everything everybody says, it’s a relief to speak honestly. If my honesty doesn’t sound like Philip Marlowe’s, so be it. It is what it is. This might be a detective novel, but I’m no detective. My name is Ethan Muller. I am thirty-three years old, and I used to be in art.



OF COURSE, I LIVE IN NEW YORK. My gallery was in Chelsea, on Twenty-fifth Street, between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, one gallery of many in a building whose identity, like that of the city around it, has been in flux more or less since birth. A row of stables; a garage for hansom cabs; then a corset factory, whose downfall coincided with the rise of the brassiere. The building lived on, though, subdivided, reunited, resubdivided, condemned, uncondemned, and—finally—rezoned as residential lofts for young artists, some of whom had taken to wearing corsets as a protofeminist throwback. But before the first struggling MFA filmmaker could sign her lease and get her boxes out of storage, the entire art world decided to drag its sagging ass uptown, creating a neighborhood mini-boom.

This took place in the early 1990s. Keith Haring was dead; the East Village was dead; SoHo was dead; everyone had AIDS or AIDS ribbons. Everyone needed a change. Chelsea fit. The DIA Foundation had been there since the late 80s, and people hoped that the move would redeem art from the rabid commercialization that had metastasized the downtown scene.

The developers, nosing out an ideal opportunity for rabid commercialization, took their newly prime piece of real estate and had it rezoned yet again, and in May of ’95, 567 West Twenty-fifth reopened for business, accepting into its white-walled bosom a few dozen smallish galleries and several large ones, including the airy, double-high, fourth-floor space that would eventually become mine.

I used to wonder what the corset-maker or the stablehands would make of what transacts on their former plot. Where horseshit used to turn the air sulfurous and rank, millions and millions and millions of dollars now change hands. So goes the Big City.

Because of the number of tenants engaged in the same activity—i.e., the sale of contemporary art—and because of the nature of that activity—i.e., frantic, jealous, shot through with schadenfreude—567 frequently feels like a beehive, but a hip and ironic one. Artists, gallerists, assistants, collectors, consultants, and assorted flunkies buzz up and down its smooth concrete halls, nectar-heavy with gossip. It’s a schmoozer’s paradise. There are openings to attend, a sale to scoff at, a resale that makes the first sale look like a bargain—plus all of New York’s standard social touchstones: adulteries, divorces, and lawsuits. Marilyn refers to the building as the High School, for her a term of endearment. Marilyn was homecoming queen, after all.

There’s no lobby, as such. Three concrete steps lead to a steel gate, opened by a numerical keypad, which has about as much thief-stopping power as a twist tie, or perhaps a banana peel on the floor. Everyone relevant knows the code. On the off chance that you’d recently arrived from Mars or Kansas and, never having seen an art gallery before, that you took the first taxi you could find to 567, you would have little trouble gaining admittance. You could wait for an intern to come toddling in, balancing four cups of coffee, all prepared with extreme precision, one for herself and three for her employer. Or you could wait for an artist to show up lugging a hangover and the new canvases he promised eighteen months ago. Or for a gallerist himself, someone like me, getting out of a cab on a cold and windless January Monday, phone pinned between head and shoulder, negotiating with a private party in London, fingers going numb as I count off the fare, filled with a sourceless and dreadful certainty that today was going to be one hell of a day.



FINISHING THE CALL OUTSIDE, I let myself into the building, hit the button for the freight elevator, and savored my solitude. I tended to show up at about eight thirty, earlier than most of my colleagues and a full hour before my assistants. Once work began, I was never alone. Talking to people is my strong suit, and the reason I’ve been successful. For the same reason, I treasured those few minutes to myself.

The elevator arrived and Vidal pulled open the screeching accordion gate. As we exchanged greetings, my phone went off again. The caller ID read KRISTJANA HALLBJÖRNSDOTTIR, confirming my hell-of-a-day premonition.

Kristjana is an installation and performance artist, a behemoth of a woman: six feet tall, thick-limbed, with a drill sergeant’s crew cut. She manages to be somehow dainty and enormously heavy-footed, like a bull in china shop, except that the bull is wearing a tutu. Born in Iceland, raised all over the place: that’s her provenance as well as her art’s; and although I admire the work deeply, it’s barely good enough to justify the headache of representing her. When I took her on I knew her reputation. I knew, too, that other people were rolling their eyes at me. It had become a point of pride that I’d kept her in line, putting up her most successful show in years: reviewed well and sold out for well above asking, a feat that left her literally weeping on my shoulder with gratitude. Kristjana is nothing if not demonstrative.

But that was last May, and since then she had gone into hibernation. I’d gone by her apartment, left messages, sent e-mails and texts. If she was angling for attention, she failed, because I stopped trying. Her call that morning was our first contact in months.

Cell phone reception in the elevator is spotty, and I couldn’t make her out until Vidal hauled open the gate and that huge, panicked voice came bursting across the airwaves at full bore, already deep into an explanation of her Idea and the material support she required. I told her to slow down and start again. She drew in a wet, heavy breath, the first sign that she’s about to go haywire. Then, seeming to reconsider, she asked about the summer. I told her I could not show her until August.

“Impossible,” she said. “You are not listening.”

“I am. It can’t be done.”

“Bullshit. You are not

“I’m looking at the calendar as we speak.” (Not true; I was looking for my keys.) “What are we talking about, anyway? What am I committing myself to, before I say yes?”

“I need the whole space.”


“It’s not negotiable. I need the full space. I am referring to
, Ethan.” She launched into a highly technical and theoretically dense discourse on the disappearing Arctic ice pack. She had to show in June, at the absolute peak of summer, opening on the night of the solstice, and she wanted the air-conditioning off—the
heat on
—because that underscored the notion of dissolution.
she kept saying.
Everything is dissolfing
. By the time she got to post-post-post-critical theory, I had ceased listening, absorbed by the problem of my keys, which had migrated to the bottom of my attaché. I found them and unlocked the gallery doors as she outlined a plan for destroying my floors.

“You can’t bring a live walrus in here.”

Wet, heavy breathing.

“It’s probably not legal. Is it? Kristjana? Have you even looked into that?”

BOOK: The Genius
5.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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