NICHOLAS KILMER – Harmony in Flesh and Black. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1995. Harper, paperback, 1995.

       — Man with a Squirrel. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1996. Poisoned Pen Press, softcover, 2000.

       — O Sacred Head. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1997. Poisoned Pen Press, softcover, 2000.

       — Lazarus, Arise. Poisoned Pen Press, hardcover, 2001; softcover, 2005.

   Go figure. In my previous review, I was more impressed by Michelle Blake’s The Book of Light than I was Nicholas Kilmer’s Dirty Linen (1999), but it’s the latter’s Fred Taylor “art mystery” series that I’ve been devouring like a box of chocolate-covered walnuts.

   The situation is somewhat the same in each of the novels I’ve read: Fred Taylor, with a mysterious past that includes a traumatic stint in Vietnam, works for wealthy Boston collector Clayton Reed. Taylor has an office at Reed’s, but is part owner of a house in Watertown serving as a way station for scarred Vietnam veterans, although he lives much of the time with his librarian girl friend Molly and her two children at their Cambridge house.

   The plots are generally sparked by an artwork that Reed wants Taylor to help him acquire, a task that puts Fred in extreme peril. Kilmer, a sometime painter and art dealer, has a cynical view of the art scene but he’s endowed his protagonist with a good eye for quality painting and the skill to negotiate the shark-infested waters dealers and collectors appear to swim in.

   Many of the characters are only minimally sketched, but with a vitality that keeps the involved plots in motion. The most memorable of the characters is Jacob Geist, an gifted Jewish conceptual artist who is only momentarily onstage at the beginning of Lazarus, Arise. In spite of this cameo appearance, he comes to dominate the novel as Taylor discovers his secret studio and the cache of inspired drawings that he was working on when he died.

   The best gimmick may be the one used in Man with a Squirrel. An antique dealer buys a section of an oil painting that has been rudely cut away from the canvas. As Fred attempts to track down the rest of the painting he finds that it and its dismemberment are connected to a popular self-help psychologist whose latest scam is deprogramming victims of satanic cults. The violence escalates, culminating in a climactic scene that strains the novel’s credibility but does tie up all the loose ends.

   The action in the novels may be intense and bloody, but the dialogue is often intelligent, with informed discussions of art and artists. Some readers may find these too academic for their taste. I didn’t, but then I’m a retired academic, so maybe I’m somewhat prejudiced.

   The novels don’t challenge, in precision and economy of style or structure, Iain Pears’ series set in Italy, but they are an entertaining mix of knowledgeable art dealings and crime that should interest the reader who likes the subject.

Bibliographic Note: There are three later books in the series: Madonna of the Apes (2005), A Butterfly in Flame (2010), and A Paradise for Fools (2011).