Cumin-coated

Colin Burrow

  • The Bellini Card by Jason Goodwin
    Faber, 306 pp, £12.99, July 2008, ISBN 978 0 571 23992 4
  • The Bellini Madonna by Elizabeth Lowry
    Quercus, 343 pp, July 2008, ISBN 978 1 84724 364 5

Are there too many novels about missing Old Masters? Anyone who reads Jason Goodwin’s The Bellini Card might be forgiven for thinking so. It’s about a search for a portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror which was supposedly painted by Gentile Bellini during his visit to Istanbul in 1479. It relentlessly assembles all the standard fixtures and fittings of the sub-genre: exploitative forgers, dodgy art dealers, even dodgier descriptions of Venice, a blonde contessa who allows her hair to fall ‘in golden sheaves’ before she fences with our hero (who has the rare distinction of being an Ottoman eunuch detective, which alleviates the rich diet of cliché a little) and reveals that she has Something to Hide. And yes, the blonde contessa also somehow manages a sex scene with the eunuch: ‘“Don’t stop,” she breathed softly’ – oh please do, I groaned loudly – ‘her wild golden hair flying across the pillow.’ The painting (is it a fake? Is it the same as the heavily restored portrait of Mehmet that’s now in the National Gallery?) is, of course, destroyed at the moment our hero thinks he has finally obtained it. Like most of the book, that scene (a dam bursts and the picture is washed away along with an exotic assassin) reads like bits of old screenplay cobbled together into a novel in the hope of its being turned in due course into another screenplay which will make its author shedloads of money. There are some odd Eastern recipes thrown in to lighten the mix, since our hero likes to cook: ‘In the frying pan he sautéed garlic and cumin seeds. The oil was hot; before the garlic could catch he dropped in the sliced liver and turned it quickly with a wooden spoon.’ Goodwin, it seems, knows that we deserve something a bit more nourishing than the plot, which is 100 per cent cumin-coated tripe.

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