Maria Hummel’s first mystery, Still Lives, was a brainy, suspenseful insider’s look at the cutthroat world of Los Angeles art museums, galleries, and donors. Set in 2003, it is narrated by Maggie Richter, a young in-house editor for downtown Los Angeles’s scrappy Rocque Museum.
Part of the appeal of the novel came from guessing which museums and collectors provided grist for Hummel’s literary mill. Was downtown’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) the inspiration for the cash-strapped Rocque? Who served as a model for Janis Rocque, the imperious chief donor and daughter of the museum’s namesake, a collector—imagine a lesser contemporary of J. Paul Getty or the recently deceased Eli Broad—who created his own institution instead of donating to one of the city’s established venues?
That Hummel herself worked as an editor at MOCA gave her writing a refreshing verisimilitude, down to her descriptions of the behind-the-scenes preparations for an opening night exhibition and gala or her spot-on parsing of L.A.’s multicultural metropolis. Yet for all its Southern California flavor, Still Lives had more substantial concerns, particularly the victimization of women for the sake of art.
Lesson in Red, its sequel, seeks to deepen those mysteries while advancing critical discussions on the complex interrelationship of gender and violence and art.
The novel begins with Maggie in Vermont with her parents, healing emotionally and physically after the events of Still Lives. The character also suffers residual guilt over the murder of a young woman, a source she had interviewed as a young reporter. The death provoked a personal and professional catastrophe that, in part, propelled Maggie’s escape to Los Angeles.
Now, Janis wants Maggie back in Southern California. Janis offers an opportunity to investigate and write about the suicide of 22-year-old Brenae Brasil, a graduate student at Los Angeles Art College, a highly selective school in suburban Valdivia. (Readers may recognize in the thinly veiled LAAC the Valencia-based California Institute of the Arts.) Before long, Maggie has traded Vermont for a Joshua Tree art festival, where she sees one of the young performance artist’s controversial films.
The piece is called Packing, and in it, Brenae uses the barrel of a gun as an erotically charged cereal spoon, tucks the weapon into her waistband during a grocery-shopping trip, uses the barrel as a holder to brush her teeth, and even cradles the weapon as she sleeps. Was the film meant to shock, critique the ubiquity of guns in our culture, or foretell Brenae’s suicide in her LAAC studio, using the same gun?
LAAC wants to distance itself from the artist and her complicated legacy. The Rocque Museum’s chief curator, Lynne Feldman, suggests to Maggie an explosive reason for LAAC’s inaction: “Brenae was about to make a very public criticism of their culture for women and minorities.” Janis, meanwhile, has in her possession a film the artist sent before her suicide; in it, Brenae has filmed herself appparently being raped.
Today, allegations of racial or sexual harassment often bring swift action, but in 2003, the world was different. Distraught at the death of yet another woman, Maggie gets drawn in. Experience has taught her that “women died violent deaths all the time, in agonized and humiliating ways, and you shouldn’t publicize any one of their severed lives unless you searched inside yourself and questioned why.”
Maggie’s situation is complicated by the appearance of Ray Hendricks, the enigmatic private investigator who, in Still Lives, saved her life before returning home to North Carolina. In Lesson in Red, his motives for leaving are painstakingly articulated: the unexplained death of his half brother, a young art historian discovered in a Los Angeles hotel room after speaking on a panel about an obscure London artist of the 1990s who himself died of an ether overdose.
Lesson in Red throws a lot of balls in the air, and Hummel makes a game, if not entirely successful, effort to keep them all in play. It can be hard, though, to follow her intricate juggling or to connect fully with the recurring themes of violence against women in the art world that she so deftly explored in Still Lives.
But once Hummel focuses on the investigation of Brenae’s purported suicide, Lesson in Red picks up steam. Maggie’s undercover assignment as a “gallerina,” in a gallery where a crew of four students are constructing (creating, really) an assemblage for which LAAC’s MFA director will take credit, is a fascinating demonstration of the exploitation of young female and male artists at the hands of their so-called mentors. Equally effective is Hummel’s insight into institutional politics and the often competing interests of museum founders and supporters, which has led to the marginalization of female, BIPOC, and LGBTQ artists.
While Lesson in Red lacks the crisp plotting of the first Maggie Richter mystery, you have to admire how Hummel swings for the fences. She asks the big questions that faltering art institutions, and the people who support them, most need to confront: “Will the art survive? And who will continue to shape its meaning?”•