Monday, January 21, 2013

THE JUDAS PAIR, by Jonathan Gash

I read this long, long ago, and had to hunt it down again to revisit it. I'm glad I did.

The Judas Pair is the kickoff to Gash's series about Lovejoy, a roguish antiques dealer who's sort of the Harry Flashman of the vintage-goods set. He's sometimes involved in shady deals, almost always has multiple affairs going on, often with married women, is always broke, and has an odd semi-psychic ability to identify real antiques; in the book's slang, he's a "divvy."

As it kicks off, Lovejoy is asked to locate the "Judas Pair," a set of dueling pistols that are regarded as a myth. However, the client insists they're real...and responsible for the death of his brother, who had bragged of finding them, and then was found shot in the eye, dead, the pistols missing.

Gash (pseud. of John Grant, a doctor) peppers his book with tons of legit info about antiques and how to identify them...although annoyingly this is mostly on British antiques and may not apply to those of us in the States where stuff like this doesn't always migrate. (Still, there's always Ebay...) The fictitious pistols were made by a real-life gunsmith Durs Egg, and Gash gives us a portrait of the whole culture of dueling pistols and how they function and feel in the hand. But we also have Lovejoy in all his flawed glory; he's scrabbling around, experiences grief and terror, gets pissed off, even suffers a nervous breakdown in the course of the story. But he's very intuitive and figures out the secret of the pistols at the right time.

I followed the Lovejoy series for a while, then got away from it, but I may go back. I remember some books had wonderful, exquisite plots, like The Vatican Rip or The Sleepers of Erin, but others were almost plotless and meandering, like Moonspender. One novel, Jade Woman, was a bit lacking in plot, but its depiction of Hong Kong was mesmerizing and worth the purchase price alone.

And, heck, I'm into antiques. It runs in the family; my mother used to collect salt dips but now goes for vintage textbooks. My father's vast collection of flatirons, ranging from Colonial-era pieces to the early days of electric irons, is notorious in their area and their basement is a museum of vintage laundry processing. Even my brother-in-law was bitten by the bug and now deals antiques on Ebay; I had a great time with him over the holidays looking over his recent acquisitions, like some china cats and an advertising case for dyes, with many original dye packets intact. In addition to my growing collection of antiquarian books, I've got a small collection of cigarette cases (I had a thing for those in high school), and in my mature years have developed an eye for porcelain, glassware, and prints. So Lovejoy's right up my alley.

A note: Lovejoy was the basis of a TV show that ran for a while in the UK and showed here on A&E for a while. I was never crazy about it, and some folks I knew disliked it as well. Don't judge the books by the TV show; they're much better.

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