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Critics' Corner
21 February, 2003  
The Missing Masterpiece

Worm reviews Justice Ian Callinan’s third novel, The Missing Masterpiece. Disturbingly, one can glimpse the Tub’s complex soul peeking through the pages of this spellbinder


The Missing Masterpiece
Ian Callinan
Central Queensland University Press

The Tub flexes his aesthetics

In this, Ian Callinan’s third novelistic foray, the Tub wastes no time on erotics, preferring aesthetics instead.

Sad to say, The Missing Masterpiece makes for a much duller read than his previous bodice rippers The Lawyer and the Libertine (1998) and The Coroner’s Conscience (1999).

Early signs of heaving promise like the scene on page five where the Tub’s protagonist Davenport Jones, a mild mannered curator of nineteenth century Australian art, is the hapless projector of an accidental display of arousal (it turns out to be a carrot in his trouser pocket given to him by his wife) are quickly dispelled.

Disappointingly, the Tub is more interested in displaying his knowledge of the painterly yarts, gallery politics and the international art market. He should know, having served as chairman of the Queensland Art Gallery, the Brisbane City Council Art Gallery and the Brisbane Community Arts Centre. (Then again, perhaps not.)

Once again readers are in for a juicy literary treatise on the fairer sex. The Tub’s women fall roughly into two camps – dumb nymphs with gigantic bosoms or calculating harridans who pick at their food.

Davenport Jones, the feckless anti-hero, almost becomes unstuck at the hands of a couple of cold-hearted harpies – his wife Gloria and the mysterious Jocelyn August with whom he pursues the “missing masterpiece” but more of that later.

Davenport is really a nice chap in a weedy, ineffectual sort of way, although interestingly he hates and envies “large, fleshy men full of confidence and authority”.

Despite this terrible character flaw, Davenport does get genuinely and poetically excited – particularly about Linda the gallery director’s fulsome secretary.

“Linda entered the room a few seconds later. Davenport admired her silhouette against the open doorway. He was in no way put off by the disproportion between her awesome breasts and her thin legs.

Her large, round blue eyes looked at him out of a face of unbelievable, titillating innocence. He diverted his eyes from her monumental breasts.”

A few pages later:

“Linda looked worried. She appeared childlike and vulnerable when she didn’t understand something. Davenport felt warm and protective towards her.

Davenport looked down at Linda’s wrists poised above the keyboard of her computer. Her veins were like slender violet streams in a pale landscape. Her beauty was as fragile as her intelligence. Davenport had always been attracted to blondes, especially edgy, neurotic ones with hair like burnished metal who smoked, or ones like Linda with hair of pale gold who were so placid that the past and the present, knowledge and ignorance were as one.”

No wonder Davenport’s co-curator Beverley is a no-go area: “Davenport liked her but was put off by her quickness and wit.”

Needless to say Davenport gets nowhere quickly in the erotic stakes. The Tub has other loftier ambitions for his nerdy hero. Such as the unlikely un-earthing of a “missing masterpiece” by the Spanish painter “Divera”. Davenport, a failed artist himself, is a world expert on Divera and believes the painter experimented with Cubism while in Australia in the 1880’s – twenty years before Picasso and Braque.

At an auction Davenport stumbles across an “unusual” Conder – as well as the formidable Ms August. She intrigues him with the prospect that one of her elderly aunts may be in possession of an “Australian” Divera.

The plot proceeds apace against a garish backdrop of gallery politicking involving some rather unattractive characters the slimy gallery director Silas Morning, the perfectly beastly Chair of Trustees, Mary Beaster and the rabid reporter Petula Krunken. The Tub exhibits a primitive understanding of way things work in the world of cultural politics:

“Why is she the Chair?”

“She’s close to the Premier.”

“In what way? Politically, socially, sexually?”

You haven’t heard of her?”

“No.”

“She’s a business woman, person that is. She owns a number of childcare centres and old people’s homes. She used to be a nurse. You must have seen her ads. For patient, kindly care at each end of the spectrum of life, say Beaster before any other.”

“What’s that got to do with the Premier?”

“She’s a donor to the party.”

“Just so she can be chair of the gallery?”

And:

“What about the Minister? Is he interested in art?”
“The Minister is interested in opinion polls, reading prepared speeches at the opening of exhibitions, drinking four drinks afterwards before nicking off to another function, good press, branch stacking, getting in at the next election and how much his superannuation will be if he doesn’t.”

As the plot thins, Davenport embarks on a hair-raising search for the Divera, a journey which takes him to the Gold Coast: “They were pioneers these architects, men and women of great courage. No two, or three or five of any colours were incompatible in their minds.”

And the Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea: “Another national in a lap-lap put a plate of bacon and eggs in front of Davenport.”

By now the plot has all but curdled, so The Tub dollops out a quick, creamy denouement.

The gallery nasties get their come-uppance, quick-witted Beverley gets the gallery directorship, Jocelyn August and her aunt get the money, Gloria gets another life and Davenport gets to see a lot more of Linda and her awesome orbs.

All of which seems to amount to justice in the Tub’s moral universe.

As Davenport says in the novel’s final line, “He intends to remain wary of strong minded women.”

Worm

N.B. Don’t take Worm’s word for it.

“In any country where the unwritten criteria for literary awards did not automatically exclude educated, reasonably affluent and professionally successful heterosexual males of Anglo-Celtic ethnic origin, The Missing Masterpiece would surely receive the enthusiastic recommendation which it deserves.”
Anthony Morris QC (aka Lord Eldon) in Queensland Bar News

And Mrs Kay de Jersey (wife of the CJ of Qld) gave the work a moist review in the Qld Law Society’s organ Proctor. After all, why shouldn’t she? Callinan had thanked her in the book’s acknowledgments for, ”Ö her helpful suggestions about some matters of which she knew more than I.”

How cosy.