Monday, August 11, 2014

The Irish Game by Matthew Hart - mini review

The Irish Game
by Matthew Hart

Publisher:  Plume by Penguin Group

Format: paperback   
Copyright: 2004
Pages: 220

Genre: Non-fiction, crime
Source: purchased  
Summary the back cover:

Famous paintings. A notorious thief. Cunning cops. And a troubled Irish history. 

In the annals of fine-art theft, no case has matched – for sheer criminal panache – the heist at Russborough House in 1986. The Irish police knew right away that the mastermind was a brazen Dublin gangster named Martin Cahill. Yet the great plunder – including a Gainsborough, a Goya, two works by Rubens, and a Vermeer – remained at large for years until the challenge of disposing of such eminent works forced Cahill to reach outside the mob and into the international area. When he did, his pursuers were waiting. 

The sting that broke Cahill uncovered a maze of banking and drug-dealing connections that redefined the way that police view art theft. With the storytelling skill of a novelist and the nose of a detective, Matthew Hart follows the twists and turns of this celebrated case. 

And, unfortunately, leaves his readers in the tangles. This non-fiction retelling of the robberies (yes, plural) at Russborough House, book starts out strong, but leave the reader increasingly at sea - lost in an extraordinarily messy chronology and in an increasingly less than lucid explanation of machinations of both the police and the criminals.

The use of art as surety in the criminal underworld is a central theme in the book, but is explained so poorly that it leaves the reader under the impression that the criminals involved are related to the Three Stooges - fumbling about with art while at the same time creating complex international networks for supply of drugs and/or weapons. You get the idea that these connections are important but the way they are described they don't make any sense. And even the most inept thief must be aware that a multimillion dollar painting that is damaged or destroyed due to poor handling is no longer worth millions - so as a long term strategy treating art as some sort of football to be passed around the word just would not work - at least not as described. The author fails to really make the connections to explain why these art thefts are really new and significant.

Here is an article from the FBI Bulletin that makes more sense   (hum - this looks interesting too but I haven't had time to read it all

I really struggled to finish this book. The more you read, the more it resembles a stack of notes for a book that never really got fleshed out. You need a score card to keep track of the majors players - especially with the inclusion of all the aliases used by the police. There is not enough information to really make any of the latter part of the book make sense - instead it is just a string of details that don't hang together to make a coherent portrait (sorry, that probably counts as a pun). There just isn't any rhyme or reason, and the lack of overarching framework leave you utterly bewildered as to why anyone was doing anything - or even who was doing what. And I think the book completely excluded the drama in Turkey.

The chronology is also increasingly tortured - zipping around in time from the 1986 robbery, to more recent ones, back again, forward again to when the Vermeer is hung in the National Gallery then in the next chapter telling you that the paintings were hung back where they had been originally in Russborough. Plus, Russborough House was the target of more smash and grab robberies in the 2000's - which get tossed in by the author to make some sort of point.

Anyhow - yea gods - there are much better books about art theft out there.  Unless art crime is really your obsession, I think this one is a pass - most of the information here is presented more clearly and in more detail in other books.

I guess this was a three claw read.


  1. Pity! I have a vague recollection of reading about this heist, and it wasn't in this book. It may have been a book about art theft more broadly -- I remember thinking it was a fascinating story.

    1. You are right, the heist was fascinating, which is all the more reason that this book was a disappointment. Parts of it got absolutely painful to read, when it should have been tense and exciting. Plus the way it was organized it got hard to tell which robbery the author was talking about at various points in time.

      I am going to plunge back through a couple of others to see which ones I really liked.


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