Connections: Surrealist Mystery

Because Helen Harrison is an expert on 20th-century Ame­rican art and has written about it, her latest book should not have come as a surprise. On the other hand, what would your reaction have been upon first encountering her first work of fiction, a paperback novel called “An Exquisite Corpse,” with a cover drawing of a figure wearing a dark mask with a chicken foot on one leg, a boot on one hand, and an umbrella in the other? Surprise! 

 Ms. Harrison, the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs, where Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, lived and worked, has just published an engaging and hilarious whodunit peopled with characterizations of well-known Surrealists and familiar members of the art world, their lovers, and a good number of cops and robbers.

“An Exquisite Corpse” is based on a parlor game that the Surrealists are said to have played. The game involves passing a piece of paper on which you write some words or do a drawing and then fold so what you have done cannot be seen by the next person to get it. Ms. Harrison provided her exquisite corpse with just such an inexplicable outfit (and must have had fun doing so).

Andre Breton, a Surrealist who wrote its “manifesto,” has said the game, like the artwork itself, was “designed to provide the most paradoxical confrontation possible” between elements. It is he who sets the story in motion, finding a fellow artist, the Cuban Wilfredo Lam, sprawled dead wearing a bizarre costume that might have been drawn in such a game.

The book is self-published, which has limited the critical attention it has received, and that’s too bad, especially among those interested in the Surrealists and Greenwich Village of the 1920s, who recognize such artists’ hangouts as the Cedar Tavern, and who are familiar with art world figures such as, for example, Roberto Matta, Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, David Hare, Robert Motherwell, Marcel Duchamp, and Harold Rosenberg. They all play a part. 

Ms. Harrison’s characters speak and behave personally in ways that seem thoroughly appropriate, given what is known of their real lives. She also manages to give them secretive, fictionalized roles in a smuggling operation, on which the story spins. Anne Matta, one of the artist’s real-life wives, is the key to the mystery. In the fiction, she absolves the artists of murder, while at the same time keeping their involvement in drug smuggling undiscovered. She even undoes the misimpression that a murder was committed.

Even though I spent a good part of the 20th century here and knew some of the figures in this book, I didn’t remember the work of Wilfredo Lam, although he was a prominent Surrealist whose idiosyncratic Afro-Cuban images were highly praised. The real Lam, whose background explains the mask that the fictional Lam was wearing when found dead, was a good target for fiction, although he did not die until 1982. 

Ms. Harrison, whose best known book until now is “Hamptons Bohemia,” reads a lot of mysteries and uses credible police lingo. She told me she often found what happens in the books she reads implausible, so she decided to write one herself. She’s working now on a sequel, although this time it’s a love story. 

I hope you are intrigued. “An Exquisite Corpse” is available at Amazon and BookHampton.