Killing the Emperors: A Robert Amiss/Baroness Jack Troutbeck Mystery #12

Killing the Emperors: A Robert Amiss/Baroness Jack Troutbeck Mystery #12

Lady (Jack) Troutbeck is missing.  So too, is Sir Henry Fortune, celebrity curator, and his  partner in love and money, louche art dealer Jason Pringle.  Panic begins in the London ...

About The Author

Ruth Dudley Edwards

Ruth Dudley Edwards is an historian and journalist as well as a mystery writer.  The targets of her satirical crime ...

Read an Excerpt

 

Chapter One

January 2012

‘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.’

She paused for a moment, tugged absent-mindedly on the massive rope of jet that stood out starkly against her voluminous red kaftan, reached for her glass, and had another sip. ‘Not forgetting, of course, all those who wrecked the art colleges and chucked out into the world generations proud to be untutored and unskilled. The gullible little wretches were convinced that you could be an artist without being able to paint, draw, or sculpt. Or for that matter know anything at all about painting, drawing, or sculpture. Or beauty.’

# # #

She took another sip, nodded approvingly, settled herself more comfortably in her vast green leather armchair and beamed at her friends. ‘These martinis really are excellent, don’t you think? Sometimes it’s a bit of a chore being chairman of ffeatherstonehaugh’s, (1) but if it means you have somewhere you can rely on getting decent food and drink it’s worth putting in the effort.’

  1. For the story set in the ffeatherstonehaugh’s gentlemen’s club, see Clubbed to Death

‘I still prefer vodka martinis, Jack,’ said Mary Lou Denslow. ‘You really must grow out of your filthy American habits, Mary Lou. Vodka is for people without taste buds. Which of course sadly all Americans are. Martinis are to gin as Roman Catholicism is to the pope.’ She frowned. ‘Well, to Roman Catholic popes, that is. These days there’s no guarantee that a pope will necessarily be a Catholic. I expect that in the interests of inclusiveness there will be a call for the next one to be a Wiccan single lesbian mother on benefits. Perhaps I should offer myself as a compromise candidate.’ She took yet another sip, smacked her lips appreciatively, and smiled seraphically. ‘Now apropos the gin, it’s absolutely vital that you chose either….’

‘Oh, shut up, Jack,’ said Mary Lou. ‘Get back to business. Why are you allowing the artists to live? What happened to your plan to have Damien Hirst pickled in formaldehyde and called The Physical Impossibility of Producing Art if You’ve No Fucking Talent?’

‘I dithered a bit about this. I was tempted by the alternative of having him cut in half, dangling the bits from a gibbet, and calling the result Hanged for a Calf?

Ellis Pooley raised an enquiring eyebrow. ‘You’re losing me, Jack. I’ve heard of Damien Hirst and know he made money out of a dead shark, but that’s about it. Where does a calf come into it?’

‘What sheltered lives you must lead at Scotland Yard.’

‘For God’s sake, Ellis,’ broke in Robert Amiss. ‘How can you be married to Mary Lou…’

‘The thinking man’s crumpet,’ beamed the baroness.

‘Stop stealing old jokes, Jack,’ said Mary Lou. ‘That one dates from the seventies.’

‘The old ones are the best, Mary Lou. Like Joan Bakewell, the prototype! Dreadful leftie and had an affair with that ghastly pseud Harold Pinter, but so very fanciable. Even now.’

‘As I was saying,’ said Amiss, ‘how, Ellis, can you be mar- ried to the culture industry’s iconic broadcaster and not know anything about art?’

‘I know quite a bit about art,’ said Pooley indignantly. ‘Decent art, that is. I just ignore most modern art because I’m too busy to waste my time looking at rubbish.’

‘Can’t argue with that,’ said the baroness. ‘Mary Lou, you’re paid to comment on crap. Explain Hirst to your husband.’

Mary Lou sighed. ‘If I must. Ellis, you know about the YBAs.’ ‘No.’

‘Oh, stop it, Ellis,’ said Amiss. ‘I know you’re a fogey but now you’re sounding like an octogenarian judge.’

Mary Lou patted her husband’s hand. ‘The Young British Artists, hon. Hirst and Tracey Emin and so on. The ones who made BritArt big business over the last couple of decades.’

‘Oh, them! Yes, of course. Emin’s that dreadful woman who made a fortune from her filthy bed.’

‘That’s the one, darling. Complete with empty vodka bottles, condoms, tampons, and much else you’d rather not think about before dinner.’

‘Or even afterwards,’ said Pooley.

‘The egregious Tracey specialises in what you might call the cartography of the knicker stain,’ said the baroness grimly. ‘They were presenting that sort of trash as art in a hundred art colleges years ago, but Emin was so noisy and shameless she attracted attention. And, of course, the vandals of the art world took her up. They like them loud and disgusting. It’s épater les bourgeois all over again. Only this time it’s the smug, well-heeled, liberal establishment doing the épatering.’

‘Emin’s a fame whore, Ellis,’ said Mary Lou patiently. ‘And very successful at it. She sells her horrid pointless installations and crude drawings by providing a complementary narrative of confessional and self-revelatory bullshit. She’s also been smart about becoming pals with existing celebrities, and aspiring celebrities flock to be photographed with her. She became a Conservative supporter just as it appeared inevitable they’d be getting into government and the prime minister is so keen to seem cool that he declared himself a fan and asked her to provide Number 10, Downing Street, with an artwork to give it a bit of “edge.”’ Pooley groaned.

‘I read about that,’ said Amiss. ‘A neon sign flashing More Passion in scruffy handwriting, wasn’t it?’

‘Yep.’

‘I’d have preferred it if it said Smaller Government,’ said the baroness gloomily. ‘Or Lower Taxes. Or Fiscal Continence. Or Why don’t you meddling little Napoleons just piss off and leave me alone?

Mary Lou laughed. ‘You  probably have the same politics  as she does. These days she seems passionate mostly about tax rates. She threatened to leave the country when the fifty percent higher rate came in.’

There was a long sigh from Pooley. He leaned forward and picked up his glass. ‘It’s enough to drive even me to drink. Don’t tell me More Passion was paid for from our taxes?’

‘No, hon. It was a gift that’s been arbitrarily valued by the media at a quarter of a million, thus enabling artistic luvvies to cry that Tracey is a true patriot. Mind you, she produces plenty of neon signs, and having one in a prominent position in Number 10 should at least treble their value. Probably helped her become Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy.’

‘Can she draw?’ asked a depressed Pooley.

‘A bit. Not well. It doesn’t matter. She’s on her way to becoming Dame Tracey. Or even Lady Emin.’

The baroness winced. ‘We’ve already got enough vulgarians in the Lords. Mind you, I suppose she deserves credit for exercising some decorum in her Downing Street choice. I remember two of her earlier neons that asked respectively Is Anal Sex Legal? and Is Legal Sex Anal? Now those would certainly have been edgy, especially when the PM was entertaining ayatollahs.’

She sighed. ‘Mind you, they didn’t even have the virtue of originality. In the seventies, another pretentious but more talented git called Bruce Nauman produced a neon light that said Run From Fear/Fun From Rear. However, I digress. Let’s get back to Hirst, who was the leader of that particular artistic pack. He knew how to fleece credulous halfwits. He first hit the headlines when his piece involving maggots and flies feeding off the head of a dead cow wowed Charles Saatchi.’

‘I know about Saatchi too,’ said Pooley. ‘A plutocratic adman who made another big fortune out of dreadful art.’

‘He’s married to Nigella Lawson,’ said the baroness. ‘Yum, yum. That’s Nigella. Not her food.’ She paused. ‘Well, the food’s not bad, but compared to Nigella’s sumptuous…’

‘Stop drooling, Jack,’ said Mary Lou. ‘Saatchi offered Hirst a £50,000 commission to do whatever he darned well liked and the result was a shark in formaldehyde in a giant glass tank (or vitrine, as the cognoscenti call it) called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.’

‘Hence my The Physical Impossibility of Producing Art if You’ve No Fucking Talent,’ beamed the baroness. ‘But tell Ellis what happened to the unfortunate shark.’

‘It rotted, a fin fell off and the liquid went murky. Someone said instead of watching a tiger shark hunting for dinner it was like entering Norman Bates’ fruit cellar and finding Mother embalmed in her chair. Adding bleach made it worse. After cleaning up it was still disgustingly green and wrinkled.’

‘I don’t suppose there’s any chance Saatchi threw it out?’ enquired Pooley.

Amiss and the baroness guffawed in unison.

‘Don’t be daft, hon.’ said Mary Lou. ‘We’re talking about the asylum that’s contemporary art. The Saatchi curators skinned it and stretched the skin over a fibreglass mould. The poor thing sure didn’t look good. But that didn’t stop fuckwits clamouring to possess it. Sir Nicholas Serota…’

‘Who?’

The baroness erupted. ‘You know perfectly well who he is, Ellis. He’s the bloody nincompoop who will be first into my tumbril. He runs an empire of galleries including that storehouse of junk known as Tate Modern. Tat Modern more like.’

Pooley spoke slowly. ‘What…happened…to…the… wretched…shark?’

‘I feel we’re on a postmodern journey,’ said Amiss. ‘We could call it Cherchez le cadaver.’ He saw Pooley’s face. ‘Sorry.’

Mary Lou patted Pooley’s hand again. ‘Saatchi enlisted an American international celebrity dealer called Larry Gagosian, hon, and he rang around the usual suspects. Allegedly Serota offered two million bucks…’

‘Of tax-payers’ money,’ snorted the baroness. ‘…but it wasn’t enough.’

‘There are celebrity dealers?’ asked Pooley.

‘There are celebrity hairdressers,’ said Amiss. ‘Celebrity cake-makers. For all I know there are celebrity undertakers. Of course there are celebrity dealers.’

‘The Gagosian dude isn’t known as “Go-Go” for no reason,’ continued Mary Lou. ‘He flogged what remained of the shark to the American billionaire art collector…’

‘…celebrity art collector,’ put in Amiss.

‘…Steve Cohen for somewhere around eight million bucks.’ Pooley looked stunned. ‘There’s more,’ said Mary Lou. ‘Hirst seems to have suffered from scruples, so he obligingly spent a few thou on a job-lot of sharks and replaced Cohen’s later that year, had another stuffed, gave it some fancy conceptual bullshit name and sold it to a Korean museum for four million.’ ‘Scruples my fanny,’ said the baroness. ‘He made Cohen pay the costs of the replacement.’ ‘I didn’t know that.’

‘The only surprise is that he didn’t charge the shark.’ She gazed at Pooley’s shocked expression with grim satisfaction. ‘Oh, and incidentally, Charles Saatchi, asked some years later if refurbishing Hirst’s shark robbed it of its meaning as art, replied “Completely.” Needless to say he said that when he no longer owned it.’ She gesticulated at the crystal jug. ‘Pour some more martinis, Robert. Ellis needs sustenance to bolster his strength so as to cope with the calf.’

‘Oh, yep,’ said Mary Lou. ‘The calf. You’d better do this, Jack. You’re more up to speed on this than me.’

The baroness waited until Amiss had refilled her glass. ‘Right. Now pay attention, Ellis. Our hero split a cow and a calf from nose to tail…’ She paused. ‘Silly me. Of course he didn’t. Hirst doesn’t do anything much himself other than marketing. He has an atelier, where his assistants do the actual work. Apparently at one time he had as many as a hundred.’ She snorted. ‘I try to maintain my sense of humour about all this, but when I hear some halfwit explaining that Hirst is merely following in the footsteps of Rembrandt, who had a stable of students and helpers, sometimes I want to explode. Rembrandt was a genius, he taught the gifted young how to emulate him and he would let them paint less important bits of some of his pictures and occasionally their copies of his work got passed off as his. But to mention him in the same breath as bloody Hirst is blasphemy.’ ‘True, Jack, but calm down,’ said Mary Lou. ‘Get on with the story.’

‘He had a dead cow and calf split, exhibited each of the four halves in a separate chic vitrine and called the result Mother and Child, Divided. It won the Turner Prize, which, as you will know, is named after an innovative painter of genius and is awarded annually to whatever bluffer has caught the eye of the knaves and fools who dominate the contemporary art world.’ She took an invigorating swallow. ‘Particularly the eye of the said Sir Nicholas Serota—or Sclerota, as I prefer to call him—who’s been the prize’s guiding genius.

‘So anyway, my cunning plan was to string up Hirst, split his cadaver and call the result Hanged for a Calf? Note the question mark after ‘calf.’ Arguing about the significance of that could keep imbecilic critics happy for years.’ She shook her head. ‘But then I thought leaving his corpse unadorned would represent a lost opportunity. As you know, I am a thorough woman. This would be a perfect opportunity to display a wide range of his…’ As she always did when preparing to favour her listeners with her Churchillian French, the baroness paused, set her lips in an exaggerated moue and enunciated painstakingly, ‘…oeuvres id-i-o-tique de plagiaire.’

‘So he’s a plagiarist as well as talentless?’ asked Pooley.

‘Let’s say his detractors point out that there’s nothing he’s done that someone else didn’t do first. A bloke called Ernie Saunders had a preserved shark—which he’d actually caught himself—on the wall of his shop in Shoreditch in 1989, two years before young Damien even placed the order for his dead fish. It was exhibited in 2003 in a gallery run by the Stuckists under the title A Dead Shark Isn’t Art.’

‘Stuckists?’

‘The Stuckists have a quaint old-fashioned view that artists should be able to draw and paint, and rightly dismiss conceptual art as pretentious, specious, nihilistic rubbish. The name is courtesy of Tracey Emin herself, who once shrieked ‘“tuck! Stuck! Stuck!” at an artistic boyfriend whose painting was insufficiently avant garde for her taste.’

‘Did anyone buy Saunders’ shark?’

‘Of course not. He offered it for a bargain million quid, pointing out that would save the buyer of his pickled shark more than five mill compared to what he described as “the Damien Hirst copy”, but there were no takers.’

‘Hirst was a brand by then, hon,’ explained Mary Lou. ‘As far as the art establishment was concerned, he had a monopoly on dead fish and animals.’

The baroness emitted another snort. ‘Even though a bloke called John LeKay, whom he was very close to for a while, had exhibited animal carcasses years before Hirst produced his cattle. And lent him a science catalogue showing a cow bisected lengthways which inspired Mother and Child, Divided.

She leaned forward and shook her finger at Pooley. ‘Then there was the sculpture, Hymn, a hugely enlarged version of a torso from his son’s anatomy set, which bore a startling resemblance to Yin and Yang, an anatomical torso exhibited a few years earlier by LeKay. Hirst had a bit of a setback here. Out of the million he got for Hymn, he had to cough up quite a bit because the toy manufacturer and the toy designer had complained about breach of copyright.

‘Now, Ellis, are you still paying attention?’ ‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘You must remember Hirst flogging a skull covered with diamonds.’

‘Now you mention it, I do. Nasty-looking, vulgar thing.’ ‘During the time he was most friendly with Hirst, poor old John LeKay had constructed skulls made of soap and wax and adorned them with artificial diamonds and Swarovski crystals. He sold them for around a thousand quid. Hirst had a skull made out of platinum, had someone stick about fifteen million quid’s worth of diamonds on it, called it For the Love of God and demanded fifty mill. Didn’t quite get all of that. It ended up with a consortium that included him. But don’t worry about Damien. The lad’s a multi-multi-multi-millionaire. Unlike John LeKay.

‘Which leads me neatly to the multi-coloured spots.’ ‘Which you will daub all over his body,’ said Mary Lou. ‘Certainly not. Which I will have daubed by an assistant. I’m not one for unnecessary physical labour, as you know.’

‘I’d be surprised if Hirst was the first artist to paint spots,’ said Pooley.

‘You mean to have spots painted in his name,’ added Amiss. ‘And you’d both be right. Yes, it’s an old idea and yes, he wasn’t any good at it. Indeed he described the few spots he painted himself as “shite.” But his industrious assistants produced many hundreds of spot canvases, which have earned their employer millions.’

‘At least he’s honest,’ said Amiss.

‘Candid would be a better word, Robert. But I will admit Damien can sometimes be almost endearing. He once explained that the best spot painting “you could have by me” would be one painted by his assistant Rachel. And when an interviewer pointed out to him that other artists claimed he had stolen their ideas, Hirst’s response was: “Fuck ‘em all!” Why should he care? There’s no copyright on ideas.’

‘Has the art establishment ever shown any signs of worry about all this?’ asked Amiss.

‘Worry?’ said the baroness in her best Lady Bracknell voice. ‘Worry? This month that ghastly Gasgosian creature stuffed the eleven galleries he’s got dotted around smart bits of the world with a global exhibition called The Complete Spot Paintings of Damien Hirst, 1986-2011. All the small, medium, and big spots your little heart could desire.’ She emitted a heavy sigh.

‘While you’re at it, don’t forget about Tate Britain,’ said Mary Lou.

The baroness took an enormous silk handkerchief from the recesses of her kaftan, mopped her brow theatrically, breathed deeply a few times and had a draught of martini. ‘I will be calm. Yes, Tate Britain! ’ She breathed deeply again. ‘You and I might think that since this lucky museum owns a magnificent collection of British art since 1500, it might show us the best of it. But Sclerota’s in charge of that too. Last time I was there, pre-twentieth century art was restricted to a few rooms. Modern tat was rampant.’ There was another heavy sigh. ‘I suppose we should be grateful that Sclerota didn’t insist that in this year of the Olympics, as the world focuses on London, Tat Britain should be cluttered up for five months with an enormous Damien Hirst retrospective. No. Reason has prevailed. It’s Tat Modern that’s hosting his rubbish. Mind you, it’s having to have its floor reinforced at great expense because huge vitrines of formaldehyde and assorted animal carcasses weigh a lot.’

‘You’re looking baffled, Robert,’ said Mary Lou. ‘I just don’t understand why people are taken in.’

‘Having hailed the talentless as talents in the first place, their reputations are at stake. How can all these critics and curators who’ve hailed Hirst as a genius fess up?’

‘Besides, if dealers and collectors were to admit the emperors were naked,’ said the baroness, ‘they’d lose their own shirts’. She sniggered. ‘Did you hear that story about the arch-luvvie, the play director Sir Trevor Nunn? Apparently, he bought one of Hirst’s spin paintings…’

‘What are they?’ asked Pooley, wearily. ‘And whom did he nick the idea from?’

‘You dribble paint onto a revolving surface and see what happens. Artists—including, inevitably, John LeKay—have been doing this for decades. Hirst added motors to speed up his assistants’ production line. Eventually Nunn met Hirst at a party and told him he had one of his spin paintings. Hirst asked the title and the price. Now Nunn had bought this before Hirst’s prices went stratospheric, so he’d paid a mere twenty-seven thousand quid. A delighted Hirst then confided that this painting was the work of his two-year-old son, with some help from a ten-year-old pal. Nunn got over his disappointment when he later sold the thing for nearly fifty thou.’

‘They’re all mad,’ said Pooley.

‘It’s a madness that’s made a lot of them rich. Take the case of the journalist, A. A. Gill. In 2007, he asked Christie’s to auction a painting of Joseph Stalin for which he’d originally paid two hundred. When they refused, on the grounds that they didn’t deal in Hitler or Stalin, the cunning sod asked if they’d sell Stalin by Hirst or Warhol and they said they certainly would. Sadly, Warhol was dead, so Gill had to make do with his mate Hirst, who agreed to paint a red nose on Stalin and signed it. It went for a hundred-and-forty-thousand.’

‘I’m speechless,’ said Pooley.

‘Just as well,’ said the baroness. ‘Less competition for me.’ ‘We’ve wandered a long way from your method of   disposing of Hirst, Jack,’ said Amiss. ‘Will he have diamonds stuck to his head?’

‘Certainly not. Unlike Hirst, I’m not made of money. But I’ll have his orifices stuffed with cigarette butts.’

‘Why cigarette butts?’ asked Pooley. ‘He’s flogged cabinets full of them.’

‘I thought he flogged cabinets full of pills,’ said Amiss.

The baroness clicked her tongue. ‘He did indeed. As— again—had been done before him. Hirst and many of his contemporaries claim to be original in their use of commonplace objects, when they’re just providing variations on what Marcel Duchamp thought of nearly a century ago. They burble these days about being in the vanguard of transgressive art…’

‘What’s that?’ asked Pooley.

‘Art that pushes the boundaries and has the knickers of the bourgeoisie in a right old twist. I’ve nothing against that myself. I sometimes fancy a bit of transgression. However, the point  is that all this was done by the Dadaists after the first war and Marcel Duchamp, whom one might term the Dada of them all, had most of the ideas that the YBAs pass off as their own. Take the Hirst Stalin. One of Duchamp’s japes was to paint a moustache and goatee on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and exhibit it. It was Duchamp who announced that objects he called “readymades” were art.’ She paused. ‘Well, him being a frog, he called them “ob-jets trou-vés.” He kicked off with a bicycle wheel and a bottle rack. Then came the urinal.

‘Stop looking so depressed, Ellis. It gets worse. Duchamp bought a urinal from an ironworks called Mott, called it Fountain, signed it R. Mutt and tried to exhibit it. It was rejected, but later became the icon of conceptual art, since Duchamp’s message was that anything he said was art, was art. “I declare myself an artist, and so anything I say is art is art” became an immutable law. Actually, Duchamp was making a case for artistic freedom and he was also making a joke, but the law of unintended consequences gives us Hirst and his chums and an art establishment bowing down before them.’

‘Like the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf,’ suggested Pooley.

‘Funny you should mention that. Hirst gold-plated a calf’s hooves and horns, called it the Golden Calf, and flogged it for nine mill.’ Pooley groaned.

‘Fill us in on the cigarette butts,’ requested Amiss.

‘Hirst branched out into butts. Standing butts and lying-down butts carefully arranged by his loyal workforce. Some of the cabinets were edged in gold to appeal to Arabs. They went for hundreds of thousands of smackers.’

Amiss sighed. ‘The older I get, the more it’s borne upon me that there’s one born every minute.’

‘In the case of Mr. Hirst,’ guffawed the baroness, ‘he also believes that you should never give a sucker an even break. Especially if the sucker is rich. In that regard he does have a touch of genius. He’s an alchemist: he takes base metal and turns it into gold.’

‘Well at least what you’ve been planning is pretty original, Jack. I don’t think even Hirst has come up with snuff installations before now,’ said Amiss.

Mary Lou laughed. ‘Jack, didn’t you once suggest suffocating Jeff Koons in a giant plastic inflatable penis and sticking him outside some museum?’

‘I most certainly did. I settled on Washington’s Museum of Crime and Punishment as the location.’ The baroness looked pensive. ‘But I could never decide on quite the right title for the work. Obviously, I thought of Dick, but I’d reserved Dickhead for my creation combining real bits of that Quinn bloke who won fame with the sculpture of his head made from his frozen blood.’ She glanced at Pooley. ‘Come on, Ellis. You’re off-duty. Stop looking down your nose like a Reverend Mother who’s discovered the novices having an orgy in the cloister, and choose a so-called artist to rub out.’

‘It would have to be the ghastly Emin.’

‘Predictable, but nonetheless a good choice. We would be well rid of her maudlin narcissistic ramblings about her gynaecological workings. How would you dispose of her?’

‘Wrap her up in her unmade bed and roll it down a cliff?’ ‘That’s  a bit unimaginative by your standards, Ellis,’   said Amiss. ‘What’s the point of reading all those crime novels if you end up with such a pedestrian method of murder. Think Edgar Wallace.’

Pooley took a small sip of his martini and concentrated hard. ‘OK. Poison her pudding with the cholera bacterium and claim she caught it because of her insanitary habits.’

‘But what would you call this work of art?’ asked Amiss.

The brooding silence that followed was broken by the baroness. ‘I have it. Crown her with a neon light flashing Just Deserts. And not with a double “s”’.

‘I’m getting into the spirit of this,’ said Amiss. ‘Can we create a giant Campbell’s can full of soup and drown Andy Warhol in it? And yes, yes, I know he’s dead but we could exhume him.’

‘And call it You say tomato and I say die?’ suggested Mary-Lou. ‘Tempting though it would be to settle scores with any number of dead frauds,’ said the baroness, ‘I’m a busy woman and there simply isn’t enough time. We have to stick to the living.’

‘Can we get back to why you’ve concluded that artists are the wrong targets?’ asked Mary Lou. ‘You’ve strayed a long way from where you started.’

‘I know you interrogate people for a living these days, Mary Lou, but it would be a shame were this to prevent us from dallying a while in conversational byways.’

‘At the rate we’re going,’ said Mary Lou, ‘we’ll never even get a glimpse of the highway.’

The baroness looked at her watch. ‘Wait till we’ve eaten. Now where the hell is Rachel? Ring her, Robert, and tell her to hurry up. If she’s not here in five minutes we’ll go in to dinner without her. I’m damned if I’m going to put the artichoke and goat’s cheese soufflé in jeopardy. It’s taken three arguments with the chef to get it quite right. The fellow’s congenitally unsound on the chili issue.’ As Amiss headed for the door with his phone at the ready, she shouted after him: ‘Tell her it’s an emergency: the martini jug is empty.’

Disaster was averted when Amiss’ wife arrived in the bar just in time, accepted with equanimity that the baroness considered her tube train breaking down an inadequate excuse for missing martinis, and the soufflé and all that followed were such a success that even the baroness could find no fault. The marrowbone stew with herb dumplings had caused her so much ecstasy she had been moved to charge into the kitchen to congratulate everyone. In the interstices of criticising her guests for insufficiently attending to their food and wine, she listened with surprising attentiveness to Rachel’s account of what life was like as a probationary teacher in a London comprehensive.

By ten p.m. the five friends had settled in the gallery and had resolved the inevitable arguments with the baroness about whether, what, and how much they wanted to drink (‘You’re a crowd of blasted puritans’). Pooley and Rachel were drinking decaffeinated coffee (‘Wimps! The whole point of coffee is caffeine. I’ll have a double espresso.’) and nothing else (‘Typical!’). Mary Lou and Amiss had mollified their hostess by each ordering an Americano, agreeing to help her do justice to the decanter of port, and showing some interest in her impassioned explanation as to why the traditional Portuguese manner of treading grapes was immeasurably superior to anything a machine could do. After a few minutes, Pooley leaned forward and said, ‘Jack, I hate to interrupt, but I can’t stay long. If there’s anything else you want to tell us about, you should get on with it. I’ve an early start tomorrow and murderers to locate.’

Reluctantly, the baroness turned her attention away from the delights of the Douro River Valley. ‘I was seeking to alert you to the destruction of art, of course. Pay attention.’

Amiss yawned. ‘You’re always banging on about the destruction of something.’

‘What do you expect, when the Western world is going to hell?’ She reached again for her glass. ‘Do I not spend my life selflessly battling with the forces of anarchy?’

‘You’re usually leading the forces of anarchy.’

‘Only on battlegrounds of my choosing,’ she said stiffly. ‘When it’s a necessary means of getting my way. And anyway, I never defend intellectual or moral anarchy.’

‘I’ve heard you defend blackmail and intimidation,’ remarked Rachel.

‘If they’re my ends, they justify my means.’

Pooley was getting irritated. ‘Can we cut the philosophical niceties, Jack. I’m a simple policeman. Get to it. What’s up?’

‘We have fought the culture wars together, my friends,’ she said, waving her glass of port for emphasis. ‘But we cannot rest. The forces of darkness still reign. They must be overthrown. This time it’s the Satanic army of the art world that must be destroyed.’

Mary Lou looked apprehensive. ‘Haven’t you won enough cultural battles to justify hanging up your sword, Jack?’

‘Absolutely,’ said Amiss heartily. ‘When you come to think of it, you’ve been pretty comprehensive and successful.’

The baroness threw him a contemptuous look. ‘You’re mistaken if you think such blatant flattery will get you off the hook, Robert. I don’t indulge in false modesty…’

‘You can say that again,’ said Mary Lou.

‘Darling, please don’t interrupt her,’ said Pooley. ‘It only slows everything up.’

‘…so I recognise that I have had some small success in routing the evil forces of political correctness at St. Martha’s (2) and Paddington University. (3) And, of course, there was the Knapper-Warburton. But I cannot rest upon my laurels. There’s much more to be done.’

She leaned forward confidingly. ‘Now, I recognise that I cannot fight and win global cultural wars. Mine have to be small canvases. Like Jane Austen’s. I am not Tolstoy.’

‘You’re a bit more like him than Jane Austen, if I may say so,’ said Amiss. ‘At least in your appetites.’

She ignored him. ‘So the small canvas this time is related to art. And once more I need help.’

‘What kind of help?’ asked Rachel.

‘Stop looking so apprehensive. I’m not going to kidnap Robert. Now pay attention and I’ll tell you what we have to do.’

_____________

  1. Matricide at Martha’s
  2. Carnage on the Committee
  3. Murdering Americans

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