Guest Blogger John Scherber – The Artist Turns Detective

From the desk of Debra Goldstein…

Debra H. Goldstein - DHG's Blog

perf5.500x8.500.inddThe Artist Turns Detective by John Scherber

A lot of people would like to paint, and I’m no exception.  In high school I had a close friend who painted, and I always wondered how well he did with it later in life. I took a run at it myself in those days and bombed badly. Much later I returned to it in a more methodical way and became fairly competent, but I didn’t quit my day job.

What I did learn from painting is that you have to see things differently. There were exercises where, for example, you’d paint a vase upside down. It helped to keep you from thinking of it as a vase––putting a name to it––only seeing the action of light and shadow on the surfaces, which is what you painted. Names come from a different part of the brain and they get in the way.


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            Portrait painting is not Paul Zacher’s favorite art form, but it’s a living. And how many people can comfortably get by on what they make painting? The problem is that a good portrait involves getting close to your subject, but suppose the subject is someone you’d rather avoid?

            Paul Zacher is not easily deceived by appearances, since they are, in fact, his stock-in-trade. He knows they exist in layers, like a series of masks. One lies beneath another. His task is to understand which ones to use as he paints. Which ones tell the real story of his subject, and when should he also rely on what he already knows about this person sitting in his studio. Is a person’s history a part of this process? Or should Zacher confine himself to the current image before him?


            The question becomes especially tricky when the portrait subject is a man everyone knows, a former vice president of the United States, a man who was forced to resign in disgrace. A man also forced to make restitution in order to avoid a stint in prison.

            Paul Zacher’s gaze probes the elegant bearing, the hooded eyes, the supercilious smile. This is a man who remembers only one thing: that he was once and for several years just a heartbeat away from being the most powerful man in the world. He prefers to brush the rest aside––as if it was all rumor and hearsay.


            The vice president has settled in San Miguel de Allende, leasing an important eighteenth century mansion. Some think he has decided to cross the border in order to retire from public life, away from the eye of the media. The source of his income is not clear. Paul Zacher is not entirely able to mask his distaste for this project, and when the vice president is murdered at an elegant dinner party that Zacher is also attending, when the murder weapon is an artist’s paintbrush sharpened to a fine point and driven through the disgraced politician’s ear deep into his brain, all eyes turn to Paul Zacher, the portrait painter, the principal of the Zacher Agency. He is known to be a man with an interest in crime as well as wet paint, and he has had some close and recent experience with murder.

            The task of the Zacher Agency becomes clear: to save its leader from arrest as a political assassin. But could is this be a case that fits the dictum of the law profession, he who defends himself has a fool for a client?


BRUSHWORK is the third of twelve Paul Zacher mysteries.







The painter is working on a series of nudes placed against a layered backdrop of the Yucatan jungle and stark carvings of Mayan gods. He has mastered the contrasting tones of skin and stone, the shadowed foliage and sunlight flashing off the leaves, the coil of the woman’s black hair draping over her shoulder. He paints from photographs of the vegetation and sculpture, but the model in front of him is real.


Does an artist see things differently? What would happen if a successful painter were to turn detective? Would his skills at the easel make any difference? Naturally he sees the colors in shadows, the relationship between two curves on the canvas before him, and the way one color can ‘pop’ another when placed next to it. He likes to use coarse Russian linen, where the fabric weave creates a texture and pattern that plays against colors and forms on the painted surface. Because two things are happening at once, the viewer’s eye flickers between them. He loves the smell of oil paint as he works in his studio in the old colonial town of San Miguel in the heart of México.


His name is Paul Zacher, and although he makes a decent living by his art, he knows he’s the rankest of amateurs at crime investigation. He’s reluctant to get involved, and it’s only for a friend of a friend that he agrees. One useful trait he brings to this crime scene comes from his portrait painting skills. He can read the subtle nuances in people’s faces, scan the language of gestures, parse the lines at the corners of their eyes, trace the meaning in the unintended curve of their lips.


At the age of thirty-five, his painting career has also taught him something about life. He knows that his portrait clients are never all good or all bad. They display every variation in human qualities, and his job is to sort out the balance of these characteristics to portray their role in the human condition. He wonders now as he cleans his brushes why a murderer might not be the same way, neither black nor white, but many shades of grey. How then to pick him out of a crowd? How to read his intentions, his past, his motives? The nuances of his heart? Like what Paul Zacher the artist consistently discovers in shadows, can he also see the color in evil?


What awaits him as he plunges into the labyrinth of this murder case will test his perceptions at every turn, his ability to see beyond the obvious, and to probe beneath the skin of the upscale expatriate community, where the key to the mystery lies in counterfeit Mayan antiquities and, oddly, in a tiny change coin, one worth only twenty centavos.


Twenty Centavos is the first of twelve Paul Zacher mysteries.