The Crimes of Paris and Vanished Smile

By Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
R. A. Scotti

The world’s most famous painting, Leonard da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is also one of the most mysterious. Just what does her smile mean? Suggestions have included everything from a come-on to a veiled threat to the working out of a mathematical equation. Is there any way to finally explain her je ne sais quoi?

Mysteries like these are for art historians (and the odd mathematician) to argue over. In 1911, however, the “Mona Lisa mystery” had a more literal meaning. It had been stolen.

Today, on display in her own personal room in the Louvre – a concrete, climate-controlled bunker where she can only be viewed through two sheets of bulletproof (nonreflective) glass set 25 centimeters apart – stealing the Mona Lisa is the stuff of fantasy. In fact, the same was thought in 1911, but for less good reason. Practically anyone could simply walk into the Louvre, take it down from the wall, knock the frame off, stick it under his jacket, and walk out. Which is exactly what happened.

It’s odd to have two new books both dealing with the same story coming out at the same time, but the publishing world has its mysteries too. And in any event, each book has its own approach to the subject.

R. A. Scotti’s Vanished Smile is exclusively focused on the Mona Lisa heist and goes into greater detail and background on the painting itself, the investigation (especially as it came to be focused on Apollinaire and Picasso), the crime, its perpetrator, and the question of what may have really been going on behind the scenes. A novelist as well as a writer of non-fiction, Scotti’s account is brisk, readable, and opinionated when that’s what’s called for. In particular, her skeptical attitude toward a dubious later explanation of how the painting came to be stolen in the first place is commendable.

The Crimes of Paris, by husband-and-wife team Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, is, as its title suggests, more of a true crime miscellany drawn from the heady days of the Belle Époque in the City of Light. The theft of the Mona Lisa is the centerpiece, but the authors also discuss popular criminal literature – the fait divers (true crime stories) and feuilletons (serialized detective fiction) – the biographies of larger-than-life crime-fighters like Vidocq and Bertillon, and a full catalogue of the most celebrated cases, from the escapades of the Bonnot Gang to the sensational Steinheil and Caillaux trials. For aficionados of the true crime genre there’s a lot on tap, and it’s a fun read, though the book does tend to wander a bit and the Hooblers mainly seem to be cribbing from other secondary sources without adding much that’s new.

At least both books share the same happy ending. In 1913 the Mona Lisa was returned, hardly any the worse for wear despite having spent a good deal of her captivity either stuffed in a trunk or lugged about Europe in the false bottom of a suitcase. Or so the story goes. The painting still has its mysteries.

Review first published December 26, 2009.

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