‘The Curse of Van Gogh’ curses itself

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There’s something grittily old-school and satisfying about consuming a classic heist thriller, both in print or on screen. The typical conventions of the genre — the character development, preparation for the actual heist, various other minor plotlines — all build up to this one enormous event that leaves you flipping pages and scooting closer to the edge of your seat as the characters finally make their move. Then you revel in the gratification of the particular brand of justice served or prize won. It is very formulaic, but through the particularities of the individual stories and the vintage suavity of the criminal characters, the experience can become new and fresh each time, such as in the movie gem “The Italian Job.”

Paul Hoppe’s debut novel, “The Curse of Van Gogh,” is not such a gem. Though Hoppe’s story follows the heist thriller formula with precision, it reads more like an overly wrought heist film script minus the suits and ties, morbid comedy, car chases and occasional auditory booms and bangs that keep viewers awake throughout. Despite the suggestive title, there’s little about Vincent van Gogh, his paintings or his “curse” in the body of the story. The story focuses so intently on its main character’s journey to the grand theft that there literally is nothing else present in Hoppe’s fictional world.

The story it does tell is of Tyler Sears, a reformed art thief who, after a stint in prison, decides to play it straight; he even finds an average job as a bartender in an art-themed bar. Unfortunately, one Komate Imasu, a billionaire businessman, shatters Sears’ resolve when he “requests” that Sears steal van Gogh’s “Starry Night” or else forfeit the lives of his family members. Ever the clever and witty criminal mastermind, Sears proposes an even more preposterous deal — that he steal 12 of the most famous Impressionist paintings, which will soon be displayed in a special exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Sears believes it’s a feat so ridiculous that his blackmailer wouldn’t possibly agree, but, of course, he does. Sears must pull together the priciest art heist in history or risk losing everyone he cares about.

Stock characters play a major role in defining and directing the occurrences in Hoppe’s book. In an almost cartoonish fashion, the author describes the villain character, Imasu, in relation to his evil smile and nefarious laughter. Meanwhile, the chief Interpol inspector hunting Sears totters around in a blustering and ineffective fashion. Women fall into the most stereotyped positions as the narrator’s voice mixes awkwardly with the main character’s, labeling minor female characters with such titles as “Chanel No. 5” and the “geisha-receptionist.” The two major female characters do receive real names but seem to exist only to cater to the main character’s needs and to assure readers of his charm and affability.

While stock characters do have a time and place in novels and movies, the excesses in this story act as antiquated redundancies in the suspense and thriller genre. The story itself unfolds in a predictable manner, supported by the bizarre motivations and reasonings of both the good and bad characters. For example, who would try to avoid stealing one of the most famous paintings in the world by suggesting to his blackmailer that he steal 11 more?  And who would be surprised that the blackmailer said yes?

As for the van Gogh aspects, though there was hope for some kind of intricate, supernatural or historical twists, the reality of the inclusion of the artist and his supposed curse is mundane and rather unimportant to the majority of the plot. This one unique trait of the story is reduced to nothing more than a fun fact in a very standard story.

The novel certainly doesn’t bring anything new to the genre, and its reiteration of common elements of suspense and thriller fiction only ages the story and the characters, sadly blemishing the sacred name of Vincent van Gogh.

Buy “The Curse of Van Gogh” here.

Contact Anne Ferguson at [email protected].