GAVIN LYALL – Venus with Pistol. Charles Scribner’s Sons, US, hardcover, 1969. Berkley S1920, US, paperback, December 1970. First published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton, hardcover,1969. Reprinted many times in the UK in paperback.

   By reading this book, if ever you do, you will learn more about the dirty side of the world of fine art — the buyers, the experts, the hangers-on and wanna-be’s, the forgers, the smugglers — than you ever dreamed existed. This is the first of Gavin Lyall’s thrillers and suspense novels, fifteen in all, that I’ve ever found time to read, and I’m glad I finally did.

   This particular adventure is told by Bert Kemp, a low-key British antique firearms dealer who’s also known in certain circles as being quite adept at moving paintings across European borders without the niceties of paying duties — or even avoiding bans on such activity altogether.

   In Venus with Pistol (also the name of a painting that first in brought into the tale on page 203) he’s recruited by Dona Margarita Umberto, a lady with a lot of money after the death of her husband, but with no means of getting her hands on it, the money having been confiscated by the Nicaraguan government. But the lady has political ambitions, and what the officials in Managua will allow her to do, Bert is told, is to go to Europe and obtain works of art for a gallery for the people of her country. Her spending limit: two and a half million pounds.

   Well, sir. Bert is on board in less time than it takes to say where do I sign up twice, along with one head assistant named Carlos MacGrgeor and two local art experts, one male, one female. From here the entourage makes a grand tour of Europe, running into snags now and then as they go, but with Bert’s quick mind at work, mostly they work out of them — except for the knock on his noggin that costs him memory as to what happened, along with a missing painting, not to mention one murder, quickly covered up.

   What this reads largely like is a series of individual made-for-TV episodes, as they make their way from Paris to Vienna to Venice to Zurich and back to Vienna. But there is a continuing thread to them, as the plot zigs and zags and thickens along the way. Bert is a good man with a quip as well as having a solid knowledge of firearms, about which the reader also will find himself (me) learning perhaps even more about, the ins and outs of which being quite essential to the story, in more ways than one.

   The ending, though, is what brings all of the separate adventures together, as Bert works out some thoughts and deductions together that both he and I should have making all the time. There’s a bit of romance at the end as well, one that was highly anticipated (by me), nor I was disappointed.