Jesse Kellerman – The Brutal Art (2008)

Another review intended for rte which turned out to be a duplicate. The rte review (at ) is a great deal more positive! Interestingly however the reviewer also notes the publicity comparison with THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER but says that he really disliked that book. Perhaps you can only like one or the other?


Ethan Muller, the first person narrator of the majority of this book, is a successful New York art dealer. He gets a call from his father’s business partner, Tony Wexler, regarding some extraordinary drawings which have been discovered in the vacated apartment of one of the many properties which Muller Senior owns. The drawings turn out to be a massive work of staggering quality and originality, but Ethan can discover very little about the artist one Victor Craske. Ethan stages an exhibition of a few of the drawings and they are sold for enormous prices. However Ethan is contacted by a retired policeman, Lee McGrath, who has identified one of the faces in the very first of the drawings (they are all numbered) as that of a 10 year old boy who was raped and murdered in 1966. The faces of the four other boys in this picture also turn out to be those of similar victims. Ethan starts on a long quest to discover the truth behind the drawings, a quest which turns his life upside-down.

THE BRUTAL ART, if not setting out to be The Great American Novel, at least wants to be A Great American Mystery. Now there are a couple of big problems with this. The first is the Mystery part. While the book does have one or two decent twists the plot, the mystery, is not of itself good enough to sustain the bulk of the book (the Great American part) – a comparison might be made here, quite justifiably as the publicity makes the claim, with Rubenfield’s THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER a book with similarly large pretensions; but Rubenfield’s book, whatever one made of the larger claims (mostly I really liked them), had a stunningly complex and brilliant mystery plot at its’ core. In the case of THE BRUTAL ART however the mystery, while adequate, is not quite good enough to sustain the burden of the rest of the book.

This of course might not matter if The Great American part succeeded triumphantly. But the problem here is that on this playing field the writer is competing not just with mystery writers but with, well just about any fiction writer you care to mention. I was put in mind at different points of Updike and Sontag ; and the brutal truth (apologies!) is that in that kind of comparison Kellerman just loses. This is particularly so because there are considerable parts of the book which are not necessarily integrated with the mystery. So interspersing Ethan’s first-person narrative we have third-person accounts of the rise and history of the Muller dynasty, starting with the arrival of Solomon Mueller as a penniless German immigrant in 1847, then observing them in 1918,1931,1939,1962 back to 1944,1953. Admittedly the more recent interludes are connected in a vital way to the mystery but the earliest are not.

This has been a harsh review. There is actually a considerable amount to admire in THE BRUTAL ART. The writing is generally of a high standard. Kellerman has some post-modern fun with his narrator as is evident from the first page where Ethan bemoans his inability ‘to write in clipped sentences’ in the noir style (indeed the book could have done with more of this engaging humour to offset its seiousness); Kellerman, the son of mystery writers Faye and Jonathan, like his narrator is a very self-aware writer. The portrayal of the New York art world is interesting, as are the historical passages and some of the location writing is very evocative. It is good to see ambition in mystery writers (as long as they don’t start to believe any of that pernicious tosh about ‘transcending the genre’). But if a book has pretensions then the harsh truth is that it must be judged by them. THE BRUTAL ART is a decent mystery with some good writing but it is not A Great American Mystery, much less the Great American Novel.