Books In Conversation
Jonathan Santlofer with J.C. Hallman
The Last Mona Lisa
(Sourcebooks Landmark, 2021)
I met Jonathan Santlofer at the Yaddo artist residency in Saratoga Springs, New York. We were housemates, and got on well. After we’d left, he offered me his spare bedroom in Manhattan, if I was ever passing through town. A few months later, returning home after a trip to Africa, I was doing just that. Poor Jonathan Santlofer! I had contracted malaria in Uganda. I’ll leave the rest of that story untold …
By then, I’d read Santlofer’s brilliantly heartbreaking memoir, The Widower’s Notebook, about the unexpected passing of his wife of many years, and the first of his many taut crime novels, The Death Artist. Santlofer is an accomplished artist in his own right, and he is a practitioner of art replication, which plays a significant role in his latest, The Last Mona Lisa, about the 1911 theft of the world’s most famous painting. Santlofer has long been a distinctive voice in the world of crime fiction.
We chatted a number of times as he was putting the finishing touches on The Last Mona Lisa. It is a sleek and cunning book. There is a crime, and murder, and thrills—but there is no sociopathic villain, only human beings with needs and desires. Even better, as compelling as it is, for its story, I sensed a number of animating ideas lurking beneath the surface of the plot.
J.C. Hallman (Rail): You could have invented a painting, or invented a crime—but you gave us something real, authentic. Why was it important to tell a true story in a fiction, and to what extent did you feel bound by what had actually happened?
Jonathan Santlofer: The true event inspired me to write the book, so I would never have changed that. It’s such an amazing story that few people know: how one man took the Mona Lisa off the wall and walked out of the Louvre Museum is still astonishing. I felt bound to the facts of the story in a “this is what happened” sort of way: a man, a carpenter, one who had been recently fired from the museum, hid in a closet overnight and stole the painting; the museum director was traveling, the guard who should have been in that room with the painting was home with a sick child, and the painting was not missed for two full days; the search, the police involved, the rewards, and newspaper articles, are all factual; the two men suspected of aiding and abetting the crime were real people and real suspects. The backstory of the novel, the crime, is fact-based. The contemporary story is fictional, though it collides with the past, thereby blurring fact and fiction, which became an exciting way for me to tell the story.
Rail: At one moment, the book’s protagonist, Luke Perrone, says that he’s been thinking a lot about the past and the present, and of course his journey is, in some ways, a trip into his own past and ancestry. Similarly, the book toggles between narratives from the past and present. What is the suggestion there?
Santlofer: We all carry our past and personal histories with us throughout our lives. In pursuing the long-lost prison journal which contains the truth about his great-grandfather, the man who stole the Mona Lisa, Luke not only exposes a family secret but gets to rewrite the truth about his family’s past, something few of us ever get to do, which is why fiction can be so much more satisfying than real life!
On a basic craft level, I wanted to write a book that played with two times periods coexisting, so the reader was always switching between the two, making connections, getting deeper meanings, and following two stories.
Rail: Like your character, you traveled to Italy for the book—what made that essential? What did you find on the streets that you couldn’t find in a book or documentary?
Santlofer: The first third of the book takes place in Florence, and though I’d been there, I needed to see it again. I think it’s vastly different reading about or watching a documentary about a place than actually being there, walking the streets, smelling the air, seeing the people and the monuments. I spent a week walking eight to nine miles a day tracing every route each one of my characters takes in Florence. I got permission to visit the academic study area of the Laurentian Library, which I would have gotten all wrong (as Luke, my protagonist, does at first in the book), if I’d not gone. Plus, I had no idea that Le Murate prison still existed. Part of it is now a contemporary arts venue, but most of the prison is a monument, intact, exactly as it was when my character was interned. I got to walk through the old stone corridors and sit in a cell like the thief Vincent Peruggia did, an experience I will never forget and was able to duplicate in the book. When I got home, I rewrote all of the Florence scenes. Even if I used very little of what I’d seen, it made my writing about the place more alive.
Rail: The story of the theft of the Mona Lisa has been around for a while—since it happened, obviously. But subsequently in a number of books and films. Yet your treatment feels new and necessary. What did you see in it that still needed to be addressed?
Santlofer: I don’t think most people know the story. Or if they do, only in a very basic way: that someone at some time stole the Mona Lisa. Any story can be retold if it is reimagined, and that’s what I did. I wanted to take the facts and mix them with fiction to create a fast-paced thriller that combined real history and art, an international chase, corruption, and even murder.
Rail: This is a book in which all the characters, ostensibly, are concerned with authenticity. Yet everyone is lying about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. (Only the thief is of true motive.) I couldn’t help thinking that there was an ulterior design here. It’s a fun book, the kind that Graham Greene used to write, but there’s a driving idea of authenticity here, too, isn’t there?
Santlofer: The question of authenticity is a theme in the book: what is original and what is not. Many people will never see the Mona Lisa, but they know it, what it looks like, represents, not only a fortune of money, but history and beauty, a whole world contained in one artwork. But does it matter if they see the original?
It’s true, the three main characters are lying, but they all feel somewhat justified because they believe their goals are altruistic. I like the idea that everyone is playing a part, acting out of deceit, though none of them are really “bad” people, just determined to get what they want, which in some cases will lead to unexpected tragedy.
I hadn’t thought about Graham Greene specifically, though this is a story that plays out in several foreign locales with ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I’m a fan of Greene’s books so perhaps his influence is lurking in the dark recesses of my crime fiction brain.
Rail: There have been a lot of art heist stories recently. What is the draw of this particular kind of story, generally and lately?
Santlofer: I think there is a need to know why people will risk so much for a piece of canvas with paint on it; what it’s like to steal an object that some people don’t care about and others will kill for. The art heist genre, real or fictional, has always interested me. Robbing a museum is just so much classier than robbing a bank. I wanted something fun and sexy like the movies The Thomas Crown Affair (the 1999 remake), or Topkapi, but fact-based and highly emotional.
Rail: Is there a plea here for a different kind of appreciation of art? I noticed brief digressions on the superficiality of looking at art on screens, and a lament on art being turned into a virtual reality experience. Has the appreciation of art been compromised by covetous greed? Have we forgotten how to look at art?
Santlofer: There is nothing like being in front of a painting and really looking at it, falling into it with your eyes and mind. You may have to stand there a few quiet minutes and do the work yourself, but you will be paid back. You experience an artwork by looking at it, i.e. seeing van Gogh’s vision, the thick sensuality of his paint, the way he almost sculpts his images with paint. You will not get that in a theatrical extravaganza. Trust me, no one needs virtual reality goggles to fly through the Mona Lisa or go to Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience to experience a painting. In fact, you will not be experiencing the painting at all; you are getting someone else’s idea of what you should see and experience, the opposite of an individual, personal experience. If you want to write a play or movie about van Gogh, do it and I’ll be the first to go (I like almost all of the movies about van Gogh, and ones about other artists), but it’s totally different than meeting a painting one-to-one. Go look at the painting, buy a postcard or reproduction, pin it on your wall and you have it forever because you saw it, you looked at it, and for a few minutes you imagined being in the painting with the artist, not someone else imagining it for you.
Rail: As someone who produces art replications, you must have been thinking about this story for some time. What tipped the scale for you, as it were? Is there something about the art world today that needs a reminder about stories like this?
Santlofer: I started what became The Last Mona Lisa 11 years ago, then put it away, but it was always in the back of my mind that one day I’d finish it. I knew it would make a thrilling tale of greed and deception. I just needed to figure out how to structure it, how to tell it, and I finally did. The fact that I make “forgeries” for art collectors gave me a kind of fascination, even a personal understanding of the characters and story.
Rail: It seems to me that, as a writer, you are particularly attentive to character motivation. Not to get too crafty here, but for the writers in the room would you say that character motivation requires particular attention in crime fiction, where the plot is likely to hinge on motive as well?
Santlofer: If your characters aren’t compelling, I’d say your book is in trouble. Your reader has to care about them, and what they’re after. I often write separate bios on each character to better understand their motivations, but I get to know them better over the course of writing the book. My protagonists are always searching for something meaningful that will change their life—for better or worse. In that way, their quest becomes something the reader can root for (even if it’s wrongheaded). In his quest to learn why his great-grandfather stole the Mona Lisa, Luke learns a lot about himself, but he pays a price. Each of the characters in this book are playing a high-stakes, high-risk game.
Rail: Who would you say are your crime genre influences? I’m asking because in recent years it seems like the crime genre—just like the art world—has really gone global. In your book, there are stray meta-references to crime books, thrillers, movies. It’s kind of a nostalgic look backward, and I often found myself picturing Hitchcock.
Santlofer: I love the crime genre, in books and in film, and I’ve always been a huge movie buff. When I write a scene, I have to see it, cinematically, in my mind, or it’s usually no good. Books and movies are different species, but you can learn a lot by watching a film, how a good film can show you something in a few frames that would take pages and pages in a book. Movies always make me think: how can I do that, be economical and visual so the reader really sees the scene?
Hitchcock is a big influence on me, the way he story-boarded every scene is like a novel. I’ve seen every one of his movies, multiple times. I love the Hitchcock/Truffaut book, where he reveals things about his films, his craft, and his actors. Hitchcock knows how to set up suspense by giving the viewer more information than his protagonists, which is something I like to do in writing.
As a kid I devoured Poe; later, Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith, both of whom I still love, and Cornell Woolrich, who wrote the short story which became the Hitchcock film, Rear Window. There are way too many contemporary writers to name, but I love Lawrence Block, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Megan Abbott, Sara Paretsky, and many more. I’m always discovering new crime writers. And for the record, there are very few great literary novels that do not have a crime at their center, Crime and Punishment, An American Tragedy, Lolita, to name just a few.
Rail: You started out in the art world, and made it. What happened? Why did you feel the need to establish yourself in another discipline? And when did you begin to suspect that the art world was ripe for the crime treatment?
Santlofer: I wanted to be an artist from the time I was a kid, mainly because I could draw anything. It came easily to me and I pursued it through undergrad and graduate art school with never a doubt that was what I’d do with my life (and to be honest, I didn’t think I was good at anything else). I worked hard and met people in the art world who liked what I was doing and helped me, and I became a fairly successful painter. I would never have stopped being an artist had I not lost a decade of my artwork in a gallery fire. It kind of froze me and for the first time made me question why I was making art. It was also the first time I was “blocked” and couldn’t paint, and I needed something else, so I started writing a novel, which became (after 10 years!) The Death Artist. The art world is already a satire, so it wasn’t much of a leap. I put a serial killer in the Manhattan art scene and had a good time seeing what would happen. I ended up writing three books with the protagonist Kate McKinnon, a character the exact opposite of myself—rich, beautiful, and a woman. In the course of three books, I took everything away from her and ruined her life because I believe in reinvention (I’ve reinvented myself at least three times), and wanted Kate, someone who had everything, to be forced into reinvention by the tragedies of her life.
I still draw and paint all the time. For the past two decades, I’ve been making high-end replications (a.k.a. forgeries) of famous paintings for wealthy art collectors, so I can identify with the art forger in The Last Mona Lisa, though I swear I have no criminal intentions!
Rail: What can you tell us about the actual verification process of the Mona Lisa? Are we really just trusting the curators at the Louvre that what is hanging on the wall now is the real thing?
Santlofer: There are art historians who believe the Mona Lisa in the Louvre today could be a forgery switched at the time of the theft. That notion inspired my story. Is it true? I’m guessing the painting in the Louvre is Leonardo’s masterpiece, but I’ll say this: there are many forgeries in many museums all over the world just awaiting detection.