Painting in the Dark

“His masterpiece to date” – The Guardian

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Click here for the KINDLE version: Painting in the Dark
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And now: reissued in a glorious new big PAPERBACK format!
Buy it from Amazon: Painting in the Dark paperback
This is a confession. Instead of telling you how wonderful the book is – and it had fabulous reviews (see below) – I am going to tell you something a writer should never tell anyone – one of those secrets best kept in a bottom drawer.  Originally, five big UK publishers praised the book but hesitated to take it. Why? Because they couldn’t easily categorise my book they turned it down. Great book, they said, but where would we place it? Crossover books are so difficult.

So here’s the first question: Is Painting In The Dark a crime novel?

I wasn’t concerned with ‘where to place it’, and I didn’t care which genre I was in – I’d simply tried to write a damn good novel. My agent, Jane Conway-Gordon, thought Painting In The Dark the best thing I’d written. And the ‘fiercely independent’ Do Not Press could not understand how other publishers let it slip through their grasp. Subsequent rave reviews suggested they were right.

So why did the big publishers turn it down? The book is controversial. One publisher hated it: because of its take on fascism and 1930s attitudes, he said, he wouldn’t have it in the house.  But sometimes an author has to be controversial. As the Times once said, “Russell James goes looking for trouble where more circumspect writers would back off”.  I was also advised – though not in writing! – that I couldn’t say what I was saying: about the British and Germans in the Thirties, about war atrocities, about Fascists, Nazis and the police, about paedophiles and criminals today – and certainly not what I seemed to imply about Tony Blair and New Labour. (How right I turned out to be, some might say now!)

So who was right? Why don’t you decide?

There are two main threads to the book – a modern crime story and the recollections of an 85-year-old woman with dark secrets in her past. In the modern story we meet a character I’d introduced before, in Count Me Out, where I caught the readers’ sympathy (to an extent!) for a character impossible to like or condone – a physically repellent but pathetic paedophile.  In Painting In The Dark, Little Ticky returns, having survived the terrible fire at the end of Count Me Out, and is reunited with his gargantuan master Gottfleisch.  In Painting In The Dark, they are pitted against an equally controversial character – that reclusive woman of eighty-five. Born into minor aristocracy, mingling with the art set, meeting dark luminaries such as Mosley, Hitler and Hermann Goering – how could she be anything other than a villain? Wasn’t she as unforgivable as Little Ticky?

These are challenging questions, and perhaps it’s not surprising they made some British publishers uneasy.  But the book is established now.  I am proud of it. Like Jane, I think it the best book I have written – perhaps the best book I shall ever write. With its background sweep, from the Thirties to Blair’s triumphant election victory in the late Nineties, this was my twentieth century novel.

Neither a glum book, nor a deep and serious read, it remains exciting, informative, sometimes humorous, sometimes angry. Out of print in English print form (still available in its French translation) but now available again as an ebook, I suspect that of all my books this is the one which will be talked about the longest.  Why not download a copy and join the debate?

Still wondering?  Take a look at these reviews.  Starting with the British:

“A terrific, cultured tale of crime for the sake of art”
Marcel Berlins in The Times

“Try not to miss this original, cleverly devised novel. After its bizarre hook – dwarf burying a body in a darkling wood – you soon begin to see that you are being treated to a multi-layered tour de force. Uppermost is a first person apologia by a British woman, sometime friend of Goering and house guest of Adolf Hitler. Miss Keene, an old lady now, is introduced as the sister of Naomi Keene, whose informally posed portraits of leading Nazis have become very collectable. Intertwined with her fluent review of her life is a third-person account of rent boys and squatters in central London – the link between them is an avaricious art dealer’s employment of a lonely and fire-mutilated thief to hunt down the remaining Naomi Keene paintings. The old lady’s mild, persuasive, upper-middle-class English voice is perfectly produced, her seductive non sequiturs slip by … Painting In The Dark is a novel which prompts a dozen questions about our own attitudes to the past. But it reaches further into dark areas of the present, not dissimilar to the darkness in which the fascism of the 1930s was born.
– Donald James in Time Out

“This is the one book that you have to read. Promise!   Painting in the Dark is political but does not preach, weaving a tapestry around the halcyon days of the German ‘court’ in the 1930’s where we see grotesque humans such as Hitler and Goebels/Goering through the eyes of an ordinary woman and her artistic sister, to a soon-to be dictator, albeit on a lesser scale: Tony Blair on the eve of the 1997 election. It sounds dull but it isn’t. I hate books set in this era but this one held me entranced. I wanted to know about the sisters, one’s art and, decades later, their fate. I wanted to know whether the homeless child would be safe or whether the bogey man would get him. It made me want to read on – and regret when there was nothing left to read.

This book is not about anything but about everything. Oh, that sounds empty but it’s too good to describe . . . Believe me, Painting in the Dark is an eye-opening, page turner. And it’s fun.” Fiona Shoop, assistant editor of Shots magazine

“James cleverly interweaves the past and the present to unfold a sophisticated, chilling story of deceit and betrayal. A thoroughly gripping, multi-layered novel from an acknowledged British master of hard-edged crime.”  – The Mail On Sunday

“Ambitious, imaginative, almost-true story of Nazi-loving Brit sisters Naomi and Sidonie Keene, who, in the 1930s, took up with Hitler and co. – genuinely because they saw them as charismatic makers of gem-hard, gem-bright new Europe – and as a result became known as the Traitorous Toffs … Extremely shrewd mingling of near-fact and fiction, with memories of the Mitfords (Unity actually puts in an appearance) tincturing the narrative … James really scores when he sticks to his political might-have-been. His dark imaginings are potent, gripping and memorable.”
– Philip Oakes in The Literary Review

“His masterpiece to date, eclipsing much of contemporary British mystery writing with its compassion, meticulous plotting, historical relevance and chilling subject matter. A complex tale of art treasures in which the present has to face the horrors of the past, in particular those of Nazi Germany, this is a courageous and ambitious novel.”
– Maxim Jakubowski in the Guardian

“This has got to be James’s best book to date. He builds his story expertly, the characters are great and he enters an area which most writers fear to tread … By setting the story against two very opposite governments in two different periods in English history James needed to tread a fine line. This is done with care and it works. I think it would hard for the author to top this work.”
-Mike Stotter in SHOTS magazine

Painting in the Dark is a complex, satisfying thriller, that’s something of a departure from James’ previous works of London noir. Set during the General Election of 1997 during which Tony Blair’s New Labour swept to power in a wave of zeal, it bounces back to the 1930s, when another charismatic leader was rising in Europe. There are flashbacks to the life of Nazi sympathiser Sidonie Keene (now 85) and her painter sister, who was an intimate of Hitler and Goering. In the present day the art dealer Gottleisch and his unscrupulous assistant, Ticky, are convinced that Sidonie has a hoard of her sister’s ever-increasingly valuable paintings and are determined to get them by whatever means necessary. This is a long book (over 300 pages) but never does the pace falter and you are hooked to the end, when the last twist in the tail leaves you breathless. This book was recommended to me by a colleague at work and I was delighted to discover one of the finest thrillers I have ever read .”
Reader’s recommendation on Amazon (Tony Brandon, 9 December, 2000)

“A compelling plotline involving Gottfleisch, an unscrupulous art dealer, and his belief that a little old lady is hiding intimate portraits of Hitler and his inner circle. It’s a dark, complex tale which takes in the outer limits of human unpleasantness as Gottfleisch sets out to steal the paintings. Moving backwards and forwards in time, Painting is unsparing in its depictions of criminals and their victims”
The Big Issue

“I really liked it, specially the ending which I didn’t see coming. I wondered in fact, why a big publisher didn’t take it on with an advance commensurate. Now I know. I could shoot the bastards. I’ve reviewed it for the Good Book Guide and put it into the Independent On Sunday as one of the best of 2000 .”
Mark Timlin, author of the rollicking great Nick Sharman series.

“Fans of Russell James will be enthralled by Painting In The Dark… This book is more than just a sophisticated and polished modern crime caper set in the art world. It gives wonderful insight into the horrors of the Second World War, as seen through the eyes of the Keene sisters; it peels back the layers of hindsight that cloud people’s perceptions of this period and shows how normal everyday individuals were beguiled into fighting on both sides… He has the power to move his readers and make them feel as if they are part of the unfolding action… This book satisfies both as a mainstream work and as a crime novel with a terrific and eerie finish.”
Jared Cade, author of ‘Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days’.

“An above average, excellent read. Highly recommended must read.”
– Denise Scott in the South Edinburgh Echo

“I was immensely impressed. A perfect example of publishing’s generalised failure of nerve and utter failure to recognise quality, clear, crisp writing (and amazing research – must’ve taken you months?) and a smart, sharp plot. I didn’t spot the switch at all before it came – and Cy was one of the best anti-heros I’ve read in a long time – the ultimate in lethal innocence ….”
–  Manda Scott, author of the Boudicca series etc.

American Reviews
“This is just a tremendous book, dealing with difficult subjects and issues deftly, sensitively, and thoughtfully. I really hate to use the word “masterpiece” if it’s at all avoidable, but I just don’t see how to get around it in this case. There’s no other way to describe PAINTING IN THE DARK.”
– Victoria Esposito-Shea, Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder, HandHeldCrime

“A mesmerizing mystery thriller that is also a chillingly compelling examination of evil. This is an exceptional book from one of the UK’s finest genre writers.”
– Emily Melton, in a Booklist starred review.

“You’ve never seen a story like this before, anywhere.

Russell James’ insightful, brilliantly interpretive and frightening novel illuminates evil, proving that no subject is off limits, ever. Powerful, controversial and completely absorbing – including a twisted ending – Painting in the Dark is a multi-layered thriller, concentrating on getting inside criminal minds not to justify monstrosity, but to understand it. The chronicled events are large, the ideas complex. You will be charmed by clever crooks and feel a deep affection for the 85-year-old leading woman. Set in England with flashbacks to Nazi Germany, Painting in the Dark is troubling and unforgettable. It will forever change the way you think about certain public issues, crime and punishment. This is the seventh novel of internationally-recognized Russell James and his finest, a real work of art.”
– Laurie Banton, American author

“I devoured the rest of “Painting in the Dark” on the flight home and now count myself among your many rabid fans. What a fine novel it is!”
– Taylor Smith, best-selling novelist

Now, here’s something you don’t see every day – pre-publication reviews from the publishers who turned it down!  (But who looked rather foolish when the real reviews came out!)

“Russell is an unusual and original writer – and therein lies the difficulty, I think. It’s an impossible novel to categorise, and I’m afraid I just can’t see a way for us to publish it successfully. So, I shall say no, with considerable regret because there is so much to admire here.”

“It’s got some marvellous things in it – its evocation of the period is terrific.”

“I like the characters, I like the plot, I like his writing … ”

“I must say I found it quite compelling. You certainly have no idea at the beginning where the plot is going to take you, and it retains a couple of tricks up its sleeve right to the end.”

“It was certainly a good read.”
– This last publisher went on to say, “It was too akin to a suspense novel or thriller for us to take on.” So what was he looking for – a recipe book?

But enough.  Time for you to download a copy and judge for yourself.

You can get (or sample) the eBook in almost any version by clicking here.

The KOBO version is available h e r e

Or to buy Kindle version from Amazon direct, click the link below:
Painting in the Dark

Russell is published by Prospero and can be found on:Facebook
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