By Mo Conlan
I am not a morning person, but I got up early to finish “Devil’s Gold,” the thriller by Barry Raut (Mill City Press). I didn’t want to stop once I’d started reading the day before, but finally my eyelids drooped.
This is the author’s first thriller; though, as a popular writing teacher in his hometown of Cincinnati (also mine), Raut is considered a dean of good writing.
As his story opens, the reader discovers that the evil of Nazism, like a rotten stone thrown into a pond, has rippled out over six decades to the present. In a Midwest town, at the small, notable Mendelssohn Art Museum, something is amiss in the Dutch gallery.
Pieter Maxfield, the museum’s art restorer, and Angela Desjardin, its curator of European painting, set out to discover why four of the paintings in the gallery appear to be attributed to the wrong artists, and why there is no historical record about them – except that they have been loaned to the museum by its director.
Erich Wolff has been the museum’s director for 30 years. As a boy in Germany, he was a member of the Hitler Youth. Adolph Hitler was his hero. He demands that the museum staff address him as “Herr” Wolff. Except for being thoroughly disagreeable, nobody much knows much about Herr Wolff and why he travels to cities around the world.
The story weaves back and forth from present day to the historic final days of the Third Reich.
This is a thrilling read, and an intelligent one. Raut creates one of the most vivid scenes I have read of the final days of the Nazi regime, including the unforgettable last day in Hitler’s Bunker. A longtime docent at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Raut knows his art and it shows in this story of art stolen, lost and found. He also knows the behind-scenes machinations of the museum world. He puts his knowledge to good use in this unique story.
His hero, actually a heroine, Angela Desjardin, is unique to the genre, not a cookie-cutter tough gal. She is good at her job, a bit ruthless, gutsy enough to stare down a Nazi.
This is a rich book, not a cardboard throw-away. I can tell the difference. For many years, I reviewed books for a daily newspaper. I read a ton of them (and still do). My favorites were mysteries and thrillers. I loved some of the early books by authors whose names appear on best-seller lists. But, something happened to the genre, and to the authors. In many cases, the stories and characters became predictable, clones of each other, the vitality of the stories gone. (Not all, of course; I have always respected that John Grisham tries something new in each of his stories.)
Today’s readers, I believe, to find reading “gold” must go beyond the lists and traditional publishers to find good new writers amid the smaller presses and the growing realm of self-publishing.
(This book is available via Amazon, and this review also appears there.)