The dictionary definition of “serendipity” describes it as the happy quality of finding desirable objects quite by accident. To give an example, here, reviewed below. are two works of detective fiction which I accidentally read back to back, a chance occurrence which may stretch the definition only a small amount, is as fine a double introduction into the parallel worlds of fine arts and antiques as you could find anywhere.

   As in most endeavors, involved here are levels of expertise and familiarity that those of us on the lower echelons are only vaguely aware of. It always comes with no little satisfaction, not to mention fascination, whenever we’re given the chance like this to pick the brains of even a fictional expert, no matter what field.

EDWIN LEATHER – The Duveen Letter. Robert Conway #3. Doubleday/Crime Club, hardcover, 1980. Pinnacle, paperback, 1981. Originally published in the UK by Macmillan London, hardcover, 1980.

   Take this book. In it the renown Viennese art dealer Robert Conway is flown all the way to New York City to assist in authenticating a priceless collection of Renaissance oils. Minute details, such as a given artist’s technique in painting ears and hands, or the texture of such objects in the background as trees are said to have exposed more forgeries than any ultra-modern laboratory technician has ever done.

   There is another puzzle for Conway to decipher, however, and that is why an apparently genuine painting should come with an entirely phony letter of authentication. The trail leads him back to Paris, where his diligence is responsible for uncovering yet another of those so many tragic tales still the European legacy of World War II.

   Another strand of the plot concerns the attempted defection of an East German SSD officer to the West. On a purely story level, the two halves of the tale run headlong together and are intermeshed only with a noticeably strong dose of coincidence. Too much of too little action seems also to occur offstage. The urbane Mr. Conway, who has appeared in both of Mr. Leather’s previous mysteries, gets his feathers ruffled only just a little this time.

  JONATHAN GASH – The Grail Tree. Lovejoy #3. Harper & Row, US, hardcover, 1980. Dell/Scene of the Crime, paperback, 1982. Originally published in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1979.

   In absolute contrast, there is Lovejoy, of Lovejoy Antiques, Inc., the scruffy hero of sorts of two previous detective novels written by Jonathan Gash. Here he is again, and somehow still managing to scrape by, both in business and his many and varied love affairs.

   Lovejoy has, nevertheless, an inborn instinct for the authentic antique — a little bell rings somewhere at the merest sniff of one — a handy knack to have, too, since England is apparently awash with myriads of fine imitations being merrily produced every minute of the day by scores of skilled, industrious craftsmen.

   In the guise of guiding a young apprentice-assistant named Lydia into the many intricacies of his profession, Lovejoyy casually tells us in passing all there is to know, and certainly more than we are ever likely appreciate, about Seraton wine tables, Hepplewhite elbow chairs, Regency silverware, and (as the ads would say) much, much more.

   Unfortunately, some endless hugger-mugger about some not-so-splendid Satsuma vases slows the tempo down considerably, and keeping track of our hero’s motley group of fellow dealers is a requirement that gradually becomes more and more of a chore.

   Lovejoy is a character of no great outward appeal, but he knows his business, and his zealous devotion to it is all but enough to make acceptable the rest of his warted personality. It should be noted, however, that it will strictly those of the male chauvinistic persuasion whom the ending, a mildly happy fantasy of sort, will please the most.

–Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 4, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1980. Both reviews were previously published in the Hartford Courant.