Home » A STUDY IN DETAIL
A Study in Detail was published as a short story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and then released as a book by Five Star Mysteries in 2014.
Portland outdoorsman Paul was content to run his rafting business and hang on to a difficult relationship with his complicated and volatile artist wife Marta—until Marta’s bike is found crumpled on a bridge span with blood on the rail and her body missing. The police suspect murder or suicide but Paul finds a message in her last painting telling him that Marta faked her death so her paintings would get the attention they deserved.
Marta’s paintings soar in value, and now Paul’s quiet life includes lecturing on the life and work of a woman he knows is not dead, and searching for the woman who left him. An insurance investigator questions a $5M policy Marta took out shortly before her death. A Native American enforcer from a casino shows up demanding that Paul pay him the $5M the enforcer says Marta stole from his casino. A gallery in Sedona, Arizona claims to have a collection of Marta’s paintings—paintings that Paul knows nothing about.
Paul goes to investigate, followed by the insurance investigator, the enforcer, and a young girl determined to help Paul forget his dead wife.
Heather Haven, award-winning author of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, said, “Sharp dialog, peculiar but fleshed out characters, an absorbing story, and finally, a depth of understanding of human complexities, desires and foibles…Five well-deserved stars.”
Here’s the first chapter.
A Study in Detail – Chapter 1
She loved us both, and that was a big part of what made me love her. Other people didn’t understand: they just saw me alone at parties where she was supposed to be, apologizing again because Marta was caught up in a painting and couldn’t be bothered. Like most vicious things, their comments were always phrased as sympathy: “Too bad she doesn’t see what this does to you,” or “All this, and nobody wants to buy her paintings.” But I just smiled and imagined her home at her easel, humming away while she worked on something new rather than enduring small conversations with small minds and trying to keep a small smile on her face.
Her paintings mattered to her, and her causes mattered to her, and I mattered to her and not much else mattered in her world. I figured that anyone who had that kind of intensity had plenty for me. And I was right. At least, until lately.
When I woke up she was already out on her bike doing her penance or meditation or whatever it was. A couple of years ago, she had started running errands around Portland on an old beach cruiser and found out she thought best and felt most alive on her bike. After a lot of prodding from me, she graduated to a red Felt FW25, light as the wind and twice as fast. She would fly along a ten mile loop around the lake all day, stopping for coffee and food at a little convenience store where the owner from the tiny African country of Leongo always asked about her mileage. Flying along on her own, working out details in her head of something she was working on, or maybe on details of something else in her life that wasn’t working.
When they worked, the rides were magic for her, ideas for paintings spinning as fast and smooth as her pedals. But her paintings weren’t selling, and she took it personally. The world was rejecting her children and she didn’t know what to do about it. So the bike miles were turning into miles looking for blame, and the blame was coming home more and more to me. Sometimes, if the world kicks you, you kick your dog. If you don’t have a dog, you kick your spouse.
Counterproductive, I know, but we all do it.
I told her one day, “Make a change, any change.”
She said, “I want a new life.”
After a long pause where neither one of us said anything, she said he didn’t know what that meant or why. I told her to find a way, just find a way. She suffered for her children; I suffered for her. We were all suffering, and we were all tired of it.
I went for a run and came back into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee and see if she was back. In my empty cup was a note: “Enjoy your new baby and your new life.” Cryptic, but typical Marta.
She had locked me out of the studio for the last week, didn’t want me to see something until it was done. She sometimes did that, and then, when it was done, she couldn’t bear to see my reaction first hand. So I knew where she was: out on her bike, flying around and around the ten mile lake loop until she was sure I was awake and had seen her new baby.
I took my coffee and went up the stairs to the third-floor studio we’d made by gutting the whole floor into one open room with big windows on every side and a couple of skylights in the roof. There was a big, bright new painting in the middle, waiting. It was a portrait of me, full-length. I had to laugh: she had painted me in electric blue workman’s overalls, with tools coming out of every pocket. I got it. Once we had gotten into a terrible fight: one in a series of recurring fights that we seemed to have over and over with no way out. At the time, she was ranting about something, anything, it never seemed to matter what as long as she had something to rant about. I was trying to come up with solutions. Every solution I came up with just made her madder until she screamed, “Paul, the Practical Man. Paul, the Fixer.” Somehow, that caught her, and she started giggling and got her own joke. “That’s just who you are,” she said, “That’s just who you are. You live in the real world; I have to live in my own imagination. That’s who you are. Paul, the Practical Man.” The fight was over, it never came back, and that was her nickname for me from then on.
So there I was that morning, Paul the Sweaty Runner with a Cup of Coffee in His Hand admiring Paul the Practical Man. She had found a new technique. Somehow, Paul the Practical Man seemed to float a couple of feet out from the rest of the painting, glowing. I was trying to figure out how she had done that, when I noticed the title painted in a scroll across the bottom: ‘For Paul, Who Understands’. I looked at my face in the painting. It had a big smile, bigger than any I’d ever smiled, but it also had a tear. That was one of Marta’s trademarks: contradiction. Every painting had to have two meanings, or it never made it out of her studio.
I stepped closer. The background appeared dark from fifteen feet away, but up close I could see that there was much more. There was a cabin where we had spent our first weekend together. The beach where we spent our honeymoon. Or where I spent it; she spent it in a back room, lost on a watercolor that she got an idea for on the flight down. Just had to finish it, just had to or the idea would run away. There was more: there I was with a sledgehammer, smashing our first kitchen table. I had spent hours putting the damned thing together with the damned Ikea directions, and she burst into tears and said, “I hate it, I just hate it, I’m sorry, but I just hate it.” So I took a sledge that I was using to remodel the upstairs and smashed the thing that I hated building and she hated looking at. Didn’t solve the problem, of course, but it sure felt good.
The painting had all of our history somewhere in the background, and that was Marta’s other trademark, and the one that killed her commercial appeal: she worked in careful layers, letting each layer dry so the backgrounds of her paintings had fantastic details. If you would spend an hour with anything of hers, you would spend two, and then three and more until you could follow the whole fantastic story she told with tiny brush strokes in giant paintings. But, of course, if you just spent thirty seconds in a gallery, you walked away unimpressed with “that red thing” or “that blue thing.”
I went downstairs to call the shop and tell them I’d be late. This one would take all morning. I made myself a Nutella sandwich to take upstairs and heard someone at the door.
I thought it was Marta, forgetting her keys again and sure I’d be there to let her in. I was going to tell her to get back on her bike for the rest of the morning while I finished adopting the new baby, but I saw Larry through the glass. Larry was our family lawyer and the owner of the gallery where Marta’s work usually opened, and was the closest thing to an agent that Marta had.
“Come on in, Larry,” I said, “You missed Marta. She’s out on her bike again and she may be gone a long, long time.”
Larry stood there with his mouth open like I’d said something strange, but I didn’t know what. Larry knew about Marta and her bike and didn’t like it. Larry was all business and dealt with everything in the now. Marta would disappear on her bike for hours and refuse to be interrupted by carrying a cell phone. Larry closed his mouth.
“Yeah, I know.” He pushed past me into the house. “Come on in and sit down, Paul. We need to talk.
“The police just left the gallery. They found Marta’s bike on the bridge. It’s been run over, and there’s no sign or Marta. There’s blood on the rail, too, but at this point, they’re not sure if it’s hers.” He took a breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know any way to tell you but to just tell you. I didn’t want you to hear it from the police. Or the radio.”
I started to say something but he held up his hands.
“Maybe she’s OK, Paul. The police are searching the area, and we can get down there and help. Maybe she’s sitting in somebody’s house right now, waiting for you.”
“Maybe,” I said, starting to plan what to do. I knew the bridge, and it was a high one, so high that there was usually a suicide from it every couple of years. This is a pretty bike-friendly area, but this particular bridge was a battleground between bikers and traffic. There was a footbridge half a mile away that bikers could use, if they would walk their bikes across. Bikers asserted their right to the bridge; some drivers, particularly some truckers, went out of their way to intimidate the bikes. There had been incidents in the last couple of years, one conviction of a driver, and one death from a hit-and-run that nobody saw.
“I know the river as well as anybody around here. I’m going to get my river clothes on and take a kayak down there,” I said.
Larry stopped me. “There’s something we need to talk about first, Paul.”
He took a breath. “You remember Jonathon Crowley? Worked in acrylics, did little pieces with odd shapes?”
I thought about it and realized where he was going. “No, Larry, that’s not what happened.”
Larry hesitated. “Probably not. But it’s something you need to consider. Nobody loved their paintings more than Marta loved hers. She didn’t care that much about the money or fame herself, but it tore her up that her paintings didn’t find the homes she thought they deserved. Every time I had to move one of her paintings into storage, I knew I had a big fight coming, like I had just locked one of her kids in a closet and wasn’t going to let him out.
“You know what happened with Crowley. Big success after he commit… died. Off of the same bridge. Marta talked about it all the time, maybe he had done the right thing, that kind of talk. Another thing: you know how Marta likes to make a statement and how she loves that bike. This will get something done on that bridge, maybe bike lanes or barriers or something.
“I’m not saying she did anything overt. Maybe just a swerve before the sun came up.” He looked at me and shrugged. “Maybe not. You know, I don’t know why I brought it up. I’m sure she’s OK.”
“You don’t know Marta,” I said.
But we both knew that he knew Marta better than anyone but me.