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Book Review: 'Lesson in Red' by Maria Hummel

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Maria Hummel - COURTESY OF KAREN PIKE
  • Courtesy Of Karen Pike
  • Maria Hummel

A young woman carries a loaded gun on her person nonstop for a week — not as open-carry propaganda, but as an art project. Viewers of the short film in which she documents her experience, "Packing," watch in dread and fascination as she uses the gun barrel to eat her cornflakes. "Milk dribbled down her chin," writes author Maria Hummel, "white and glistening."

The woman is Brenae Brasil, and her untimely demise is at the heart of the fourth novel from Hummel, an associate professor of English at the University of Vermont. Months after Brenae's film earns her comparisons to Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic, she is dead by suicide using that very same gun.

Counterpoint Press describes Lesson in Red as a "companion" to Hummel's Still Lives, which movie star Reese Witherspoon selected for her Hello Sunshine book club in 2018. Both books are literary mysteries set in the Los Angeles art world of the early aughts. They also share a first-person narrator and de facto detective: twentysomething Maggie Richter, who has journalistic aspirations and a desk job at downtown LA's scrappy Rocque Museum.

Still Lives found Maggie on the trail of a controversial artist who vanished right before a big opening. Like so many LA stories, that one ended with Maggie shorn of some of her illusions. Lesson in Red opens with her back in her native Vermont, soaking up wholesome Green Mountain vibes and trying to decide whether to return to the West Coast. When museum founder Janis Rocque tells her about Brenae and asks for her help in investigating the circumstances of the art student's death, Maggie can't resist.

Guided by private investigator Ray Hendricks, and with the blessing of an LAPD detective, Maggie goes undercover at a high-end Venice gallery. Her job is to scrutinize Brenae's friends and rivals as they mount a show by the director of the prestigious institution where Brenae was studying. Janis has reason to believe that the director brushed off Brenae's reports of sexual misconduct, and she hopes to see the man's career ruined for reasons of her own.

Hummel is clearly no stranger to the art world or LA. This book takes its place in the LA noir tradition, with atmospheric descriptions couched in terse but evocative prose. Early on, Maggie attends a showing of "Packing" at a retro desert joint where you can practically feel the arid heat and watch as "Skinny female hipsters in embroidered T-shirts shoved up against bleach-haired lady smokers giving them the stink-eye."

The city, too, is described in alternately loving and merciless detail, from its ominous weather ("the smog was so thick downtown that the morning light had turned as orange-gold as evening") to its prerecession building boom, which plays a role in the plot (see excerpt).

Lesson in Red by Maria Hummel, Counterpoint Press, 320 pages. $27. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Lesson in Red by Maria Hummel, Counterpoint Press, 320 pages. $27.

Lesson in Red is at its best when Hummel shows how the art scene fits into the city's larger cultural ecosystem. While the film industry may seem more venal, the art world is just as hierarchically organized and awash in various forms of exploitation, as Brenae's story and others illustrate.

Thanks to some early exposition and recapping, the book stands on its own and won't confuse those who haven't read Still Lives. But those readers may find themselves impatient with a subplot involving Hendricks' investigation into his brother's death, which takes many pages away from the more compelling mystery of Brenae.

The strong and silent private detective comes across as a bit of a stock character, serving as both mentor and love interest to Maggie — who, for her part, can seem naïve and unformed. Though she's an effective observer — and critic — of the stronger personalities around her, she's more interesting as a vehicle for Hummel's cogent critiques of the fame-driven art world.

At one point, Maggie formulates something of a thesis that connects this book with its predecessor: "women died violent deaths all the time, in agonizing and humiliating ways, and you shouldn't publicize any one of their severed lives unless you searched inside yourself and questioned why."

In Still Lives, the vanished artist combined feminist commentary with true-crime queasiness by painting herself in the role of various famous female murder victims. In Lesson in Red, Brenae's death raises all kinds of questions, such as: What or who gives art its value? What separates the countless MFA students who go on to obscurity from the few who rocket to stardom? What roles might gender and class play in the process?

Brenae's working-class rural background informs another video she called "First Generation College Student." In it, she struggles to swim across a pool with her eyes and mouth taped shut — a political statement that reverberates through the book.

By comparison, Maggie's personal journey toward becoming a journalist falls a little flat, despite her feelings of kinship with Brenae. Not all of the novel's colorful characters get time to shine, and its action-packed climax feels less like a stirring finale than a concession to the conventions of the mystery genre.

Noting how art-world power players vie to use Brenae's life and death to further their own goals, Maggie reminds us, "Brenae wasn't a reason. She was a person." She was indeed. But, because the novel's focus is split between her story and the subplots involving Maggie and Ray, we never learn as much about Brenae the person — what drove her, what derailed her — as we'd like to.

While readers may regret those routes not taken, Lesson in Red is still a transporting follow-up to Hummel's breakout novel. With its immersive depiction of a decidedly uncozy urban milieu, it's sure to appeal to fans of Tana French and others who like their mysteries on the literary side. During a recent talk at Phoenix Books Burlington, Hummel said a third book about Maggie is in the works. We are here for it.

From Lesson in Red

No matter what had happened to Brenae, her story was a pawn in Janis's game. Janis's real goal was to keep her own strong hand in shaping downtown culture. If L.A. in the sixties and seventies had had the best parties, and the eighties and nineties massive riots and earthquake devastation, then our moment now was about spending the future, building the new cosmopolis from the center outward. We were two years post 9/11, and American cities were precious, necessary, ours. Everyone rich enough in L.A. craved a building project; even famous actors and pop stars asked our museum director for introductions to the architects showing their designs at the Rocque. Drugs, sex, and high-end vacations were all fine and good, but renovating a loft building off Broadway, or opening a dark-paneled Sixth Street speakeasy — now that was a lucky life. Janis wanted her own vision to endure in this urban frontier frenzy, and who could blame her?

The original print version of this article was headlined "LA Story | Book review: Lesson in Red, Maria Hummel"

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