It’s hard to know where an artist’s persona ends and her art begins, and this has never been truer than in the case of the mysteriously disappeared Kim Lord, the central figure in Maria Hummel’s spellbinding new novel, Still Lives. It’s also somewhat true of Hummel herself: The award-winning poet (her collection House and Fire won the APR/Honickman Prize in 2013 for best first book) worked at the perpetually cash-strapped Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and her novel’s protagonist, Maggie Richter, finds herself in a similar job at a similarly underfunded museum.
When Lord goes missing on the biggest night of her life—an A-list museum opening featuring her photographs, in which she portrays famous murder victims—speculation runs wild. Is it a publicity stunt? Or are more serious forces at foot? When Maggie’s ex-boyfriend (now Lord’s lover) falls under suspicion, Maggie’s journalistic instincts kick in, taking her places the cops can’t go and unwittingly putting her life in peril.
No doubt comparisons to Raymond Chandler’s best work will rain down upon Still Lives, dotted as it is with trenchant observations of LA and the human condition. Like Chandler, Hummel is capable of limning out a ripping yarn replete with high fashion, high finance and high society. These are the mean streets through which our heroine travels, though slightly removed from the glitter and the nastiness. And not unlike another master of the mystery, Erle Stanley Gardner, Hummel includes an intellectually satisfying Perry Mason moment that also provides an interesting twist.
It would be damning with faint praise to call Still Lives a contender for best beach read of the year—like calling Pablo Picasso a really good painter—but Still Lives is both that and so much more.
Thane Tierney lives in Inglewood, California, and is a member in good standing at several American and international museums.