With a Gem-Like Flame

Barnes & Noble

Published by: Carroll & Graf; First Edition
Release Date: July 10, 2001
Pages: 320
ISBN13: 978-0786708772


Common sense dictates that it simply cannot exist — the "Leopardi Madonna," a glorious treasure by the fifteenth-century master Santi Raphael. All the reference books and reliable scholarship indicate that the painting was destroyed in 1945, when the Allies bombed a Nazi warehouse filled with looted art. Only now the Madonna has reappeared, it seems, in this stunning, original thriller that uncovers greed and treachery in the rarefied precincts of the art world. Summoned to Venice from America to view the painting, Renaissance scholar and sometime-art dealer Jordan Brooks returns to the city that had enchanted him twenty years before. As he ponders the possibility that a fake was set afire a half century earlier and the authentic work has resurfaced—or that the actual masterpiece was lost in the conflagration and a magnificent fake has taken its place—he also contemplates the strange and secret auction which offers him a chance to bid on the painting. Set against the backdrop of Venice in late autumn, when the timeless city's rain-swollen lagoons threaten to swamp all her treasures, the novel limns the path that lands Jordan on the doorstep of his former teacher, Giorgio Sagredo, who has compromised his ideals to sell the Madonna. It leads Jordan, too, into a horde of amoral art dealers eager to make a killing and, more fortuitously, introduces him to Katie, a young American student who has a scent for the truth and a way of turning up at the moment he needs her most.

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“Never quite coalescing into a full-fledged thriller or mystery, but involving elements of both, this first novel takes on the art world and its Venetian denizens. When a Raphael masterpiece, presumably destroyed in WWII by Allied bombers, resurfaces in the city of canals, it is scheduled to be sold at a private auction. The art world's big agents including a glum Japanese, a sinister Swiss, and a supercilious Brit are understandably excited. Before the sale goes off, however, gallery-owner and scholar Jordan Brooks must determine whether the painting is the original, saved somehow from conflagration during WWII, when it was seized from its owners, an Italian-Jewish family murdered at Auschwitz. And what role is played by a former Nazi officer who knew the original owners? Nonmoneyed art lovers will be shocked to learn that Brooks's lofty research may involve treachery and even murder. Though the tale is slow moving, Cleveland introduces excellent insights into art, old and contemporary, as well as colorful descriptions of a glorious city that is itself a living artwork; love comes into play, too, when the divorced Brooks meets the inevitably nubile grad student, Katie. Cleveland ably contrasts the romantic dream of Venice with today's grittier, commercialized version, dropping names (Dior, Ferragamo, Armani et al.) even faster than bodies. He does manage a few good surprises involving the Raphael and its disposition before indulging in sudden and predictable melodrama.”
Publishers Weekly

“Art mysteries are hot at the moment, perhaps because they offer the so-called serious reader a more refined version of genre fiction, dead bodies made palatable by the presence of old masters. There are plenty of both in Cleveland's first novel starring art dealer Jordan Miller, who is in Venice to bid on the Leopardi Madonna, a Raphael masterpiece assumed destroyed in World War II. Smelling a fake, Jordan researches the painting with the help of a comely graduate student, exposing an elaborate scam and finding himself in the midst of a bloody finale, which takes place during the city's autumn rainy season. Cleveland does fine with Venice, and the material on Raphael's life and work, though not always successfully incorporated into the action, is fascinating on its own. Where he runs into trouble, however, is with Jordan, whose internal monologues are interminable and whose ability to figure out the byzantine plot is never adequately explained. In the best art mysteries—say, Iain Pears' Jonathan Argyll series—the people are more interesting than the paintings. Here it's the other way around, although the art crowd probably won't mind.”
Bill Ott, Booklist

“A real tour de force...With a Gem-Like Flame manages to turn a good suspense novel into a riveting exploration of self, of art and of Venice as a portrait of each other...the non-hackneyed descriptions of Italy's fabled city are particularly noteworthy.”
Serena Stier, Chairperson of the Iowa Writers Conference on Mystery Novels

With a Gemlike Flame has been one of our best selling and best liked reads...due not only to the fine writing but also that its appeal crosses several different genres, from mystery to historical, to art and so on.  I have hand sold hundreds of copies to pleased customers—a perfect airplane read!”
Perry Haberman, Owner, Madison Avenue Bookshop

“When I tell you that this book revolves around a long-thought-lost Raphael painting, and one man's attempt to buy it and discover its secrets, not necessarily in that order, you'd be forgiven for thinking that you know what you're in for — another art-crime detective novel. But you'd be wrong and, like me, pleasantly surprised. For this book stresses the art above the crime, and is far more about the man on its trail, than the twists in the trail. And the lost Raphael Madonna is so lovingly described you know why he becomes obsessed. And there's a fair bit of raunchy sex, too, with a woman he meets and enlists, and you can see why he'd want her as well. Along with the art and the sex there's Venice, and they eat ice cream - what more can you ask from life? The prose style hits a few purple patches at the start, but soon settles down, with some fine business around our hero's mental state and life view. He's an odd, but believable, cove who's sensitive to art but a bit of a bastard, and more than somewhat of a cynic. You'll care, I think, and be moved to visit Venice, eat ice cream, and...well, the rest's up to you.”

“...Venice’s artistic renaissance history is oddly mostly dealt with through the exploits of modern-day art historians, who come across as somewhat unlovable individuals in David Adams Cleveland’s With a Gem-Like Flame and Juan Manuel de Prada’s The Tempest. The few novels actually set during the renaissance period tend to concentrate on a strong woman’s experience during repressive times — not a few nuns knocking around here.”
Jeff Cotton, The City-Lit Cafe