Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Susan Shea is Mixed up with Murder

RHYS BOWEN: I always particularly enjoy a mystery written by a writer who is an expert in the subject. My good friend Susan Shea has spent many years in the exciting and dangerous world of fine art collections. Here she confesses to her secret fantasy, which I'm sure many of us share.

SUSAN SHEA:  In my Dani O’Rourke mysteries, I write about some of the ways individuals approach visual art and how their desire to possess it can lead to terrible crimes. In the third book, Mixed Up with Murder, just out, the lust isn’t for the beauty of the art but for its financial value in today’s overheated market.

I’m passionate about paintings, sculpture, drawings, decorative objects, photography – all of it. To me, it’s like being in the world’s largest candy store. Did you ever have the experience of having to choose one piece of candy at the store, and finding yourself paralyzed between a Baby Ruth and a Milky Way? I do that with art, although I will never actually own the treat in question. But my challenge is that if I could have one piece from a room or museum filled with them, what would it be? I go to museums and galleries every year, so I get to play the game a lot and would have the most exciting and eclectic collection in the world if my fantasies came true!

At the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan, I struggle. Is it the Rembrandt self-portrait in middle age with the eyes that have been following me around “his” gallery since I was a small child? Or the serene, life-sized Buddha statue in the room ringed by the most astonishing Buddhas from many countries? On some visits, I head for the American Wing with its breathtakingly beautiful silver services, although the idea of having to polish them to keep that warm gleam in tiptop condition does give me pause.

At the Oakland Museum, it’s simple: any Diebenkorn painting but preferably one from the Ocean Park series. I can’t figure out how he kept the same planes and selection of colors and yet managed to keep the large abstracts fresh and compelling time after time. I could stand in front of one for a year and never get tired.

Ditto Jackson Pollack’s splatter paintings at MOMA in New York. Oh, but wait, there are the tiny, charming pre-Columbian gold figures in the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, D.C. and Matisse at the d’Orsay in Paris and the glass flowers at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History and … Uh oh, this is getting out of hand!

What about the rest of you? Do you play a similar game when you see art, or is Cartier’s or Chanel your game board of choice?

RHYS: For me it would be all Impressionists, a room full of Monets, Renoirs, Mary Cassatts. 
Susan will be giving away a copy of MIXED UP WITH MURDER to one lucky commenter today. And she'll be stopping by to answer your comments.

SUSAN C. SHEA spent more than two decades as a non-profit executive before beginning her best-selling, “wickedly funny” mystery series featuring a professional fundraiser for a fictional museum in San Francisco. MIXED UP WITH MURDER (February 2016) is the latest. Susan is past-president of the northern California chapter of Sisters in Crime and secretary of the national SinC board, a member of MWA, and blogs on CriminalMinds. She lives in Marin County, California.


  1. There’s nothing quite like wandering through an art museum . . . and your book sounds quite intriguing.
    I don’t know what kind of art I’d choose . . . so many beautiful choices; sometimes it’s a privilege just to be able to look at it.

  2. Whenever I go to the Cleveland Museum of Art, I go through all of the galleries, see the newest exhibits, but always always have to visit my favorites--the first time I actually stood in front of the Rembrandt as a young girl was mind-blowing. Then there's the Frederick Church sweeping canvas of early American landscape--like history come to life--the feeling of infinite possibility in that landscape and the sense of awe that it evokes--but one of the most moving pieces was the installation of Janet Cardiff's 'Forty-Part Motet.' The sound came rolling out of the gallery like a wave of emotion, it filled the nearby galleries with a living soul of sound. Sublime!

  3. Welcome Susan!

    Art museums are my passion and in any city that's right where I head. We were just in New Orleans and if you go DO NOT MISS the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Regional museums are a special treat because that's where you encounter first-rate works of artists whose work you've never encountered as opposed to a third-rate work by the greats.

    I used to play a game with myself, looking at those full page ads from department stores, asking myself: What do I want, allowing myself one thing. I never play that game now because there's usually not a single thing that I lust after. Not even the diamond studs. I HAVE ENOUGH STUFF! (Or maybe I'm reading the wrong ads.)

  4. Hi Susan, welcome! First, we need to hear more about this book please:)

    What a fun game you play! I love Dada and Surrealist art because that's what I studied in college, but to have Dali's melting clock on my wall? Hmmm, probably not.

    Maybe a Picasso, or a Gaugin, or a Miro...

  5. I'm kind of a traditionalist with my art. I want to recognize the objects in the painting. So I never really "got" Surrealists or abstracts.

    And I don't know if I've ever played that game with anything. Maybe I'm just not materialistic enough. Now trips. "If I could take one trip anywhere in the world..." I play that game all the time. I'm currently lusting after Rhy's Tuscany workshop.

  6. There is still room for you.Mary! I know, I realize it is pricey .not my decision!
    And good to gave you here, Susan. I've enjoyed all your books

  7. Rhys, unfortunately the fact that our front porch is falling apart takes precedence over any travels on my part. =(

  8. Yes, so wonderful, I used to play "What one thing?" too!

    And now when I look at catalogs, I play" could I FIND one thing that I'd even want? Often, no.

    Oh, I can tell you about the art. Franz Marc's Deer in the Forest. He was (killed in WWI) a German Expressionist, and this particular painting is amazing. A website says: "Supporting Marc's latest conception of the world was Wilhelm Ostwald's theory of energy, in which matter is considered illusory. Only energy lines reveal appearance such as it is. In Deer in the Forest, 1914, this conception results in an energized atmosphere of randomness and chaos. the sense of an inchoate environment demonstrates both Marc's feeling of the world as a whole and his developing urge to represent Creation, and aspiration that is present in the works of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee."

    OR! ANd I just thought of this-- 'John Singer Sargent's Incensing the Veil. Do you know it? Or MAdame X!

    Stop me.

    Love you, dear Susan! Off to work..xoo

  9. Hi Susan!!!!!!! So fun to see you here! And Hank, I love Sargent, too. Hmm, what would I pick? Very fond of American impressionists. And the French and British. But if I could pick just one, it might be a small Renoir. I remember the first time I saw his paintings in a museum in Paris. I cried, they were so beautiful. Reproductions don't begin to convey Renoir's work. The canvases glow with a sort of inner light. Amazing.

    I do flip through the fancy magazine in the NYT most Sundays, look at all the ads, and think, "Really? Why would I want that?"

    But give me beautiful kitchens to choose from, or food, or Tuscany:-)....

  10. My heart patters for Sargent, the Group of Seven, Grant Wood, George Ault and Edward Hopper. Looking forward to reading your book!

  11. I'm among friends! Hank, the only non-original piece of art I own is a framed print of that Sargent painting I keep in my dressing room. I've visited it several times at the Sterling Museum in Williamstown and could eat it, it's so gorgeous. Hallie, thanks for the tip. Since I'll be at Bouchercon in NOLA, I'll make a point of getting to that museum, which is new for me. Rhys and Deborah, I'm guessing you have both spent time at the Chicago Institute of Art, which has a superb collection of Impressionists, including some of the loveliest Renoirs anywhere? There's a small one of some people sitting at an outdoor cafe that comes to mind when I think of that artist.I feel I could slip right into their party and be happy.

    But I'm with the rest of you, alas. Clothing catalogs and - worst - photos from fashion shows...are they kidding? Would any sane woman wear what looks like a torn blanket with a cone of shame for a skirt and combat boots?

  12. I paint. When I was studying at a local school, my teacher was confused. I'd do several photo realistic subjects and then go into something more along the graphic art line. Then an abstract. Just like your trying to pick what you like best, I like to paint different things.

  13. What a wonderful game! At the Met, I would definitely walk away with Sargent's Madame X. At the Tate, one of Turner's staggering seascapes. The Leonardo portrait of the Virgin and Saint Anne - plus I'd want to same hushed, low-light room to appreciate it in.

    The only museum I can't imagine choosing from would be the MFA in Boston. Their collection if early New England furniture - arranged in actual rooms - is too good for me to just chose one. I'd just have to move in, like the kids in The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler.

  14. Welcome, Susan! I'm really fond of the room with the Tiffany fountains at the Met — just sitting on the bench and listening to the fountain. As far as paintings there, I love Robert Motherwell's Elegy to the Spanish Republic, everything by Chagall, everything by Picasso. Love the Isabella Stewart Garnder Museum in Boston, the Musée D'Orssey in Pars, and the Tate in London, especially all the William Blake work. Poetry AND art. But if I could have anything, I'd want a Matisse. Really any Matisse, but especially love the cut-outs.

  15. Lucy, Thanks for reminding me I do have a book to talk about! This is Dani O'Rourke's third venture into a professional assignment that goes crazy. She's been asked to consult with a little New England college about to receive a transformative gift - a major art collection and $20 million to care for it. But accepting art is a tricky business and the donor, a Silicon Valley VC seems in an awful hurry to make the donation. When the college official who requested her help drowns on a golf course before they can meet, she has a terrible feeling she is mixed up with murder again.

  16. Hi Susan, I know exactly where you sit and admire them - I have rested there often myself. I haven't been to London in many years but the William Blake at the Tate was a revelation to me and I now own two facsimile editions of his work. Simply stunning.

    Julie, I'd fight you for Madame X but maybe settle for one of the tall society portraits.

    Libby, I love that you refuse to settle for one period of art. Art is supposed to provoke, unsettle, and surprise us, so taking in various eras, styles and formats is part of the experience.

  17. Although I do love art, I'm content to leave the real pieces in museums where everyone can enjoy them. (But to give you an inkling of my taste, I chose a print of one of Van Gogh's Sunflowers to adorn my office wall.)
    I play that which-would-I-choose game with houses. Most of my favorites are in England—mid-size Tudor manor houses top the list. But since one just can't get the staff these days to care for a big place, I'd settle for a storybook cottage.

  18. How funny! I used to play just-pick-one-thing in catalogs when I was a kid. I visit the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and savor some of the works. My son and I were just there Saturday for a preview of BEAUTIFUL cars and motorcycles from the Art Deco age. Oh my gosh. I could play just-pick-one there. Why don't modern cars have style?
    Digressing. When we were in Madrid years ago we visited the Prado. Seeing those brilliant colors up close in the Rembrandts and other paintings. Unbelievable. Books simply can't convey those colors! I was also blown away by a traveling Impressionists show that came through Houston several years back. Love the Impressionists. But then I love Charlie Russell and Remington too, so what the heck.

  19. When I was a little girl I visited the MFA in Boston. I remember climbing the tallest staircase I'd ever seen. Then paintings so big I couldn't see the whole of them. The beauty overwhelmed me.

  20. As a former French teacher, I've spent a lot of time showing my students around the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, and Beaubourg. Each time I visit an art museum I have the same dilemma that Susan has. Which one? If only...

    I conclude that any of the great French Impressionists would make me swoon with joy should I ever be lucky enough to hang one in my house. sigh

  21. Oh, Katherine, house porn! Until I found my little house, I did the same!

    Reine, that's such a wonderful memory to have. My earliest actual art memory is being 5 and climbing the side of a stone sarcophagus at the Met, which was a cold, quiet place in those pre-Tom Hoving days.

  22. Susan, you probably won't see my comments since I'm posting so late. It's my birthday and I've been busy all day. I just want to say that I'm looking forward to checking out your Dani O'Rourke series, and I hope to meet you at Bouchercon in New Orleans this year.

    One piece of art? Hard to choose. Vermeer, Van Gogh, or the one Da Vinci that the National Gallery of Art has, Ginevra de'Benci ( A guard had to ask me to move back from the glass case in which the Da Vinci is enclosed once. I was just so enthralled with it!

  23. Thanks to all of you art lovers- nice to know so many others play the game. And thank you, Jungle Red Writers for letting me join you Wenesday-it was an honor!