Author:  Gail Lukasik

Publisher: Five Star

ISBN 13: 9781432825768

ISBN 10: 1432825763

When her phone rang and then went dead, Rose Caffery, 33-year-old performance artist, leaves Chicago for her sister’s house in southern Illinois hoping to find out why Karen, whose number it was, subsequently did not answer her phone. We know from the Prologue that Karen is a professor; that she has a restraining order against a man whose presence around her 1836 house is intimidating; that she has just discovered that the grave of an early female occupant of that house is empty; and that this fact “changed everything.”

Rose enters the dark and crumbling house, climbs the creaky stairs, and finds her sister’s body crumpled on the floor in her library, with books scattered around her and a ladder nearby. These very different women did not have a close relationship, yet Rose perceives that conservative Karen’s purchase of the old house is the first sign that she was caught up in uncharacteristic, perhaps secret, activities. Thus Rose, the sister whose wild side is art, becomes caught up in trying to fathom not just how her sister died, but what was going on in her life.

An idea begins to form when Rose finds out that a room in the house was painted with murals in the “American primitive” style and for some reason almost immediately was covered up by wallpaper. Karen had hired a restoration specialist who is painstakingly removing the 17 layers accumulated. He becomes Rose’s ally in the search for answers, though Rose does not completely trust him. In fact, Rose’s mistrust of just about everyone is what makes the novel a “thriller.”

As a reader who is not usually drawn to thrillers, I still found myself awake at 3 a.m. after I opened the book. What engaged me was the history. The mural seems to tell a story related to The Trail of Tears. I had to do a little research of my own to refresh my memory. In the 1830s, Georgia was becoming crowded with settlers, especially after gold was discovered. The native population stood in the way of the entrepreneurs, and so in 1838 the Cherokee people were forced on a march to a reservation in Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears was in fact several routes leading northwestward, crossing nine states under horrible conditions. It is helpful to know that there was one route through southern Illinois and that the history of events along this northernmost route is sketchy. Bits and pieces appear in diaries, but the only archive, compiled in the 1930s, was destroyed in a flood. This, of course, enables the author to fill in details through this fascinating blend of fact and fiction.

The 19th century murals, too, have basis in fact. There really was a muralist named Rufus Porter and even a Rufus Porter School of mural design, evidence of which has been found during antique house restorations. The New England connection in The Lost Artist is plausible. Scholars are at work on discovering the reasons itinerant muralists turned up in some localities and not others, and are trying to determine what the roles homeowners played in selecting the subject matter (in this case copying it). Some made political statements. This one was deeply felt

Had I not known about The Trail of Tears or been interested in mural art, I might not have gotten through the book at the pace described above, and perhaps those expecting a typical “thriller” to occupy time flying across the country should be advised that this is an intellectually engaging story that holds some surprises about America’s inglorious past. It is worth taking seriously.

Gail Lukasik is an agile storyteller, describing scenes vividly, using stormy weather, lonely roads, advancing headlights, woods, shadowy figures, and males both attractive and repugnant, to build tension. Before I started to write this review I took time to read another of Lukasik’s mysteries, Destroying Angels, one of a series set in Door County, Wisconsin. There too, her narrative slips back into the past and then returns to the very modern women and their predicaments. Lukasik endows them with taut emotions. Some might say these are blatantly feminist works. I would not pigeonhole her writing that way, but I would say her main vehicle of terror is mistrust. Through discomfort in any budding relationship, the narrators convey a message unsettling to this reader, who happens to be female. I can’t help but wonder what a male reviewer would make of it.

Scary as these two novels were, I have already downloaded another in the Door County series.