Boyle & Dalton
Hardback ISBN: 978-1-63337-609-0, 301 pages
Although the plot of For the Minds and Wills of Men may seem like a simple, straightforward art heist, the story is much, much more. Set during the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, when the entire artistic community was under constant scrutiny for ties to Communism, the author Jeff Lanier’s easy-to-read writing style urges the reader on while authentically replicating the chaotic feeding-frenzy feel of the times. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are about to be executed for espionage, and the Red Scare has neighbors suspicious of neighbors.
The plot quickly becomes more complex as main-character Will Oxley, the Art Division investigator for an insurance company, delves into the theft of one of Jackson Pollock’s paintings. There were twists and turns on top of twists and turns in this story. The methods Will must use to follow his leads in the case are entertaining and enlightening. As this is pre-Internet and cellphones, Will must pursue even the most tenuous leads in person. A reminder that this is an earlier time, he simply asks for the call information he needs from the telephone operators and gets it. However, he and his partner, Charlie, have to sift through the mountains of data by hand to get their answers. Will did a lot of walking, talking, and watching without using strong-arm tactics.
Much of the book's action occurs at night, and if not then, in the dark: closed businesses, darkened park walkways, and dim dive bars, giving the story a definite noir vibe. Men in overcoats and fedoras lurking on the street or around the corner of buildings certainly added to the hauntingly moody atmosphere reminiscent of a gritty detective film from that genre and drenched in glorious blacks and whites. With some very suspenseful scenes, the chill feelings of fear, suspicion, and confusion about who one could trust are palpable.
Will is a likable guy. Years after his return from action in France during WWII, he continues to have nightmares about what he saw and survived over there. Living in a time before PTSD was recognized for what it is, he keeps his struggles to himself and suffers alone. He finds solace through his love and appreciation of a small Monet landscape he's encountered in an unnamed Manhattan museum.
The story is filled with memorable characters, both fictional and historical figures. Will has a couple of good friends who have his back, and his love interest (the actual owner of the stolen painting), Liz Bower, is delightfully free-spirited but is definitely hiding something. Renowned artists Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline all make appearances. The author's portrayal of their avant-garde methods and lifestyles is engaging, and their legendary drinking is mind-boggling, with the author weaving in actual incidents from their lives as he builds the mystery.
Lanier certainly knows the subject matter he’s written about in this debut novel. He attended the University of Texas, Austin, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in history and art history, with a focus on the History of American Culture through Art and Literature, and a master’s from Rice University in Houston, where he and his family still reside.
With its 50s-noir flavor, engaging down-to-earth characters, and enticing art world plot, For the Minds and Wills of Men is highly recommended for readers of mystery fiction, historical fiction, or political thrillers, and especially those readers interested in American modern art and abstract expressionism.
Jeff Lanier earned bachelors degrees in History and Art History at The University of Texas, Austin with a focus on the History of American Culture through Art and Literature. He has a master's from Rice University, is a member of the American Society of Aesthetics, and currently lives in Houston with his wife and three children.