You might not always be able to tell the book by its cover, but there are plenty of times when the cover wins over a reader. So it was with “A Cruise to Die For.”
I haven’t been on a cruise for more than 40 years, but the last one I took was on Homer’s “wine dark sea,” the Aegean, as a 17-year-old with scores of other 17-year-olds. It was educational, enlightening, and yes, lots of fun.
So is this book, whose setting is a cruise aboard the Artemis, a mega yacht owned by a wealthy Greek, Panos Papadakis. Panos is part entrepreneur, part wheeler-dealer. Among his hobbies is buying works of art because of their resale value rather than for their artistic merit or simple beauty. Sometimes he sells shares in paintings, but usually he just buys them, waits for them to acquire value and then unloads them. He also has perhaps the best forger in the world working for him. For purposes of this story, he’s hosting an Aegean cruise as an occasion to sell 20 paintings, including the works of some famous impressionists.
The protagonist is Alix London, who is considered an expert on art and has an astute eye for forgeries. She gets invited on the cruise not to enter the bidding but to serve as a resource of information and to hold discussions for the handful of superrich individuals invited to bid on one or more of Panos’s paintings.
Alix also happens to be the daughter of a once respected artist and art connoisseur who spent eight years in prison for forging famous artworks, though he insists his works were only duplicates, not forgeries. Her father, whom Alix calls Geoff, is free now, and the two are struggling to restore an understandably damaged relationship as well as their respective reputations. Alix also worries that her father will do something that gets him a return trip to prison.
What Alix doesn’t know initially is that her invitation to the cruise is arranged on behalf of the FBI, which, along with other law enforcement agencies, has been trying to nail Panos for some time. It doesn’t hurt that Alex is attracted to the agent in charge of the operation. The FBI wants her to mingle enough with the rich, famous and eccentric to pick up details on Panos’s criminal dealings.
No sooner does Alix board the Artemis - even before she is escorted to her cabin – than she stops to look at some of the paintings to be auctioned. One, a Manet, instantly raises her suspicions. She’s reluctant to pronounce it a forgery, but something about it doesn’t seem right. When she returns to take a closer, private look at it, she is knocked unconscious. When she is roused by others on board, they discover that the Manet - if it is a Manet - has been slashed.
A day or two out to sea, one of the crew members turns up dead, and Alix learns that the forger who’d helped enrich Panos had been executed in New York. Alix suddenly realizes she’s not just on a wild adventure with the rich and famous but an investigation with high stakes for the crime fighters as well as the criminals.
Suffice it to say that some of the criminals end up paying for their crimes but others, to Alix’s surprise and disappointment, do not. Alix’s biggest surprise, however, awaits her when she goes home after the cruise and visits her father.
The authors, Charlotte and Aaron Elkins, are married and bring their own expertise to their craft. Charlotte, who wrote romances for a while, is the art expert, having been the American Art librarian at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Aaron has been writing mysteries for 30 years. They’re developing a series of Alix London mysteries.
Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor.