In KILLING THE EMPERORS (Allison & Busby), Jack announces to her friends that it’s time to take up the cudgels against the latest manifestation of ‘cultural idiocy’, that of contemporary conceptual art, as represented by artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin.
Shortly after, the Baroness goes missing. Her friends are concerned, and become more so when famous names and faces from the world of conceptual art - artists, critics, curators, buyers - are also reported missing.
It quickly becomes apparent that a Russian oligarch called Sarkovsky is responsible. An enthusiastic collector of modern art, and a recent ‘companion’ of Jack Troutbeck, Sarkovsky was hugely dismayed to discover that his multi-million investment in art is - according to Jack - largely worthless.
It’s fair to say that Ruth Dudley Edwards is no fan of modern art, and KILLING THE EMPERORS won’t be winning any awards for its subtlety. The novel opens with a short version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, from which the title of the novel is taken. After a short prologue in which the first murder victim is discovered, Chapter One opens thusly:
‘I used to want to kill the talentless so-called artists,’ said Baroness Troutbeck, ‘but now I want instead to fill the tumbrils with the critics, the dealers, the curators, and all the rest of the charlatans and dunderheads peddling trash in the name of contemporary art.’ (pg 23)Edwards does not shy away from naming and shaming. Artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst are name-checked, as are collectors and curators such as Charles Saatchi and Nicolas Serota. All of them are damned as ‘charlatans and dunderheads’ who have perverted successive generations of artists with their notion that art is what the artist says it is.
Jack Troutbeck is much more conservative in her understanding and appreciation of art, preferring the works of those artists who can actually paint, sculpt or play music to those who bypass the craft and simply peddle ideas, or concepts.
I found it all hugely entertaining - although in saying so, I should probably admit to my own bias against conceptual art. KILLING THE EMPERORS isn’t a conventional crime / mystery novel, being much more of a polemic concerned with satirising conceptual art than it is with constructing a mystery to be solved. That said, I found it to be terrific fun, occasionally laugh-out-loud, and wonderfully subversive. - Declan Burke