The monikers of killers — the Glamour Girl Slayer, the Goodbar Murderer, the Black Dahlia Murderer, the Golden State Killer — evoke a dreadful poetry that fuels our collective imagination even as we recoil at their deeds. Our ambivalence runs deep; we call their murderous acts killing “sprees,” as if they were somehow lighthearted flings. But what of the victims? Who remembers their pain and suffering?
Kim Lord, the artist at the center of Maria Hummel’s novel, “Still Lives,” does. The provocative painter inserts herself into her canvases, inhabits the lives and final moments of 11 real-life murder victims, including Nicole Brown Simpson, Elizabeth Short, transgendered teen Gwen Araujo and Washington, D.C. intern Chandra Levy. Although Lord hasn’t had a major show in a decade, her feminist work has caught the attention of the downtown Rocque Museum, which is showcasing the canvases as part of a gala honoring her that has attracted L.A.’s hippest art cognoscenti.
Maggie Richter, a fledgling journalist now serving as the Rocque’s in-house editor, is dreading Lord’s gala for several reasons. Assigned to write on each of the paintings, the unnerving images raise questions about the ethics of Lord’s much-lauded masterworks. “The more praise I penned, the more it rang false to me — to be so stagy in your subject matter, to take another woman’s victimization and make it your material.” The work also triggers the guilty memory of the murder of Nikki Bolio, a young woman Richter had interviewed while doing research for an investigative journalist’s exposé on New England drug dealing. And finally, Richter’s ex Greg Ferguson is now living with Lord, re-creating himself as a gallerist who goes by his more artistic middle name, “Shaw.”
It soon becomes clear that, text messages to the contrary, Lord’s a no-show. That’s a PR nightmare for the staff but as days pass, concern for her safety makes her disappearance a police matter.
The players involved include museum director Bas Terrant, “an East Coast silver-spoon scion layered under a sheen of Hollywood,” whose job had grown precarious due to the Rocque’s increasingly large deficits and whose desperation is showing in his “people-friendly” idea for a new exhibit, “Art of the Race Car.” Yegina is Richter’s best friend and the museum’s exhibitions manager; Jayne West is Richter’s boss, the head of PR; and Brent, a Broadway set designer, is slumming as the head of the Rocque’s construction crew. Then there’s Janice “J. Ro” Rocque, heir to her father’s fortune and chair of the board of the museum he founded. Her vision: “L.A. will not play second fiddle to New York, with its entrenched and historic art scene, but will seize the future by taking risks, supporting art that surprises people and forces them to self-examine.”
If all of the back-of-the-gallery intrigue in “Still Lives” rings true, that’s because Hummel worked as a writer and editor at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which the Rocque stands in for, complete with its revolving cast of directors, budget woes and board of directors resignations. Janice Rocque’s father, a collector who started his own iconoclastic museum, follows paths blazed by Norton Simon, J. Paul Getty, Armand Hammer and Eli Broad. Lord’s work is reminiscent of the important and influential photographer Cindy Sherman’s ”Untitled Film Series.” Other background characters — “the wild gray heads of the renegade artists who once carved out studio space among the oil derricks of Venice Beach” and other gala guests “with their leather and perfume and expectations” — are a byproduct of the observations of a writer who’s been around the art world block a few times.
“Still Lives” is also a knowing insider’s guide to a Los Angeles not usually seen in novels. A homeless man near Angels Flight, Echo Park’s Angelus Temple and Griffith Park’s riding stables are filtered through Hummel’s poetic sensibilities, which encompass something more disturbing about a city “where murderers come to hide … where a figure once called the ‘Southside Slayer’ turned out to be multiple serial killers murdering poor African-American women in South Central for decades.”
As rumors about a stalker circulate and suspicion eventually falls on Shaw, Richter is drawn into the investigation, as much to work out her guilt for the unsolved murder of Bolio in Vermont as to help her ex-Greg/Shaw or clear her own name.
While “Still Lives” is a deeply affecting examination of how our culture fetishizes female victims of crime — be it in art, news, or publishing — it will also have readers feverishly turning pages to discover the fate of engaging characters who are more than symbols of what’s wrong or right about Los Angeles. It’s a stunning achievement for a writer who perfectly captures an outsider’s ambivalence about the city’s pluses and minuses, and most notably its sensational crimes and the dark angels we make of its victims.
Woods is a book critic, editor and author of several anthologies and novels, most notably the Charlotte Justice mystery series.
Counterpoint: 288 pp., $26