What makes art heists so captivating that they’ve earned their own category in mystery fiction? Are we enthralled by the capering plots? The access to glamour? The illusion of a crime in which nobody gets hurt?
Rebecca Scherm’s debut novel, “Unbecoming,” involves an art heist, but Scherm doesn’t indulge us with the uncomplicated pleasures we’ve come to anticipate from this subgenre. “Unbecoming” inverts everything we expect from a heist story: The pacing is deliberate, the characters are recognizably human, and even small acts of deception leave victims in their wake.
The novel opens with its protagonist, Grace, living under an assumed name in Paris, where she works in antiques restoration. Back in Grace’s native Tennessee, her husband, Riley, and his accomplice, Alls, are being paroled from jail. They’ve served three years for a museum robbery that Grace orchestrated. Everything they stole has been recovered — except a painting Grace took with her when she fled to Europe.
Suspense builds as we wait for Grace’s crimes to catch up with her. It’s a controlled suspense, drawn out over present-day chapters that alternate with scenes from the past. We experience Grace’s adolescence in Garland, Tenn., where she ingratiates herself to Riley’s family. We travel with her to Manhattan, where she attends college and learns to appraise art. We return with her to Tennessee, where she plans a robbery while trying to resist her attraction to Riley’s friend Alls.
In each setting, Grace takes on roles and makes compromises that lead to her “unbecoming,” the unmaking of an identity forged from “the twin crafts of loving [Riley] and of being lovable.” Behind her Mona Lisa smile, Grace reveals herself as a liar and a thief. Far from the gentleman burglar’s female counterpart, Grace is deeply flawed and often destructive. Yet we empathize with her, perhaps because she reflects our own capacity to deceive. “Everyone’s faking something,” Grace claims. “You just have to figure out what their thing is.”
“Unbecoming” documents the evolution of an antihero, but it also represents the heist novel’s coming of age. Grace argues that art is “not there to look nice [but] to scratch at people’s brains.” Traditional caper stories “look nice.” They entertain without provoking deep thought. By introducing complex themes and one of the most compelling characters in recent fiction, Scherm has elevated the heist novel beyond entertainment. Like a painting that becomes more intriguing the longer you study it, “Unbecoming” is a genuine work of art.
Kim Kankiewicz is co-founder of Eastside Writes, a community-based literary arts organization near Seattle. She’s online at www.kimkankiewicz.com.