Review: Automat by Stephanie Kane
In her latest novel, Automat, author Stephanie Kane returns readers to the world of art, investigation, and murder.
Automat is the second novel featuring Kane's Lily Sparks character, the Conservator of Paintings at the Denver Art Museum. Lily has a unique gift: a perfect eye. Her area of expertise has served her well at the museum, as she's able to visually dissect paintings almost instantaneously, dividing what is original from what has been touched up, embellished, and outright added to works of art.
In the first Lily Sparks novel, A Perfect Eye, these skills serve the character well in an area that she never could have expected or prepared for: murder. When a killer begins recreating famous works of art through real life homicide, our conservator protagonist is able to use all of her mental acumen and discernment to determine motive, influence, and ultimately identify the killer.
The second novel, Automat, returns readers once again to the world of high art and murder. The title of the book is also the title of a famous 1927 panting by Edward Hopper, and that piece itself serves as the inspiration for a whole new murder mystery. Can Lily Sparks combine her years of museum expertise with her innate gifts of investigation to expose the killer before they strike again?
The central appeal of these Lily Sparks novels is the way in which the author blends the refined culture and high society appeal of the art world with the visceral, base sensationalism of murder. Lily is not a cop, nor is she a private investigator. She's not well-versed or trained in the art of crime scene investigation, and her days are filled with beautiful landscapes and portraits, not grizzly human remains. Balancing these two disparate tones is a tough act to pull off, but Stephanie Kane achieves this remarkably well. In addition to being an author, Ms. Kane is also a lawyer, has owned and operated a karate studio, and has lectured about true crime. Like the character of Lily Sparks, these experiences lend themselves to a remarkable perspective and scope, which add remarkable realism to her storytelling. Our author has understanding of beauty, but also of ugliness and human nature.
Automat takes the reader deep within the inner sanctums of the art world: galas, fund-raisers, theatrical exhibitions, fancy evening events filled with champagne and hors d'oeuvres. But she also takes readers to the depths of hell as the body count begins and no gory detail is left to the imagination. From the internal workings of the art world to the inner organs of the human body, this is a novel that vacillates between extremes in a way that is wonderfully disorienting.
This is only deepened as we are slowly introduced to the killer--still anonymous for most of the novel--in chapters dedicated to our antagonist. These chapters are written from the internal point of view of the murderer. Without spoiling the plot, it's worth mentioning that the killer knows that Lily Sparks is on their trail. They know they're being pursued. This is a game of cat and mouse. But with such an expert investigator, who is the cat?
Though I always considered myself to be an art enthusiast, the world of these Lily Sparks mysteries feels foreign to me, perhaps by design. The chapters prompt repeated trips to Google in search of more information on these paintings, artists, and techniques. In fact, these details play such a key role that familiarity is a must. This world of art and curation seems to be a clear passion of Stephanie Kane, and she's devised a way to spin these mysteries into tales that also promote the appreciation and awareness of the arts.
However, it's also worth mentioning that this family of characters, settings, and events were established in the novel A Perfect Eye. Relationships are in play that begin in that novel, and there were consequences from the previous novel that not only carry over into Automat, but are essential to the reader's understanding. Romantic entanglements, work relationships, even the relationship between Lily Sparks and her grumpy father were formed in the prior novel, and much of that development is required to appreciate where we find these characters now in the second book.
The good news is that new readers will find no challenge in starting at the beginning. Both A Perfect Eye and Automat are short books with chapters that fly by. At around 200 pages, Automat moves like mad, and most chapters consist of between two and four pages. These books are imminently readable, and aren't 800-page epics. They are throwbacks to the great mystery novel tradition which began some 100 years ago. Even the name of the publisher, Cold Hard Press, is reminiscent of pulps on a spinner rack in a drug store.
It's been a joy discovering the world of Lily Sparks, experiencing her artistic approach to murder investigation, and observing as she squares off against murderers who thought they'd accounted for every last detail except for one: the perfect eye.