The Sunday Gazette-Mail

Charleston, Sunday, April 19, 1998

By James Ralston

Jorn Bramann's new novel, "Phantom Doors," is a suspense mystery for the inquiring mind. Zeno Venn, the protagonist, is wrapping up a video documentary on the work of recently deceased avant-garde artist Basil Baroda, when questions arise as to the authenticity of many pieces being sold for huge sums under Baroda's name.

Art dealer and gallerist, Barry Ashton, who owns many Baroda pieces, commissions Venn to uncover a video interview that television journalist Penna Sewell made with Baroda just before he died-a video which Ashton hopes shows some of the questioned works in the background and thus verifies them as genuine.

The tape, however, has disappeared from the archives of the TV station where it was aired, and Zeno's search for it begins in earnest. Clue by clue, step by step, Zeno descends into a welter of intriguing characters who live out of the main stream of American life.

The most interesting of these is Penna herself, who had been fired from her job at the TV station shortly after her interview with Baroda had been aired. Penna is a free spirit. As well, she is the classic femme fatale, the woman with whom men fall hopelessly in love but cannot possess. Zeno, a man of the mind (and not entirely happy with himself for that fact), falls quickly under her spell, believably so, for so does the reader.

Penna perceives how desperate Ashton, the curator, is to find the missing tapes and fathoms the reason why. Rumors that he is peddling forgeries have destroyed his credibility to the tune of about a million in lost sales. She talks Zeno into demanding a high price for the detective work, $200,000, a demand which, to Zeno's amazement, Ashton accepts.

The tapes prove elusive to find, however, as the bigger money draws in competitors of unsavory character from Penna's free living past. The plot thickens, and Zeno finds himself in ever deeper danger (which he accepts, partly because he begins to want the money too, but mostly to impress Penna, to whom he has become frightfully vulnerable), right up to gun play and suspicion of murder.

Those dangers are nothing, however, compared to Zeno's rising emotional blood pressure for Penna, encouraged by her attraction to him, too. Believably so, for he has a subtle and creative wit, and sees the world in funny metaphors (e.g. "He was a mushroom virgin"; "For a second Julia looked as if she'd been brushed by a bus"; "The .inside looked like something between a fraternity house and a goat shed"; "He felt like an old car without wheels, parked on cinderblocks").

Penna's worldliness and sensuality complements Zeno's intellectuality and humor. Nonetheless, Zeno rightly suspects from the outset he is no match for Penna, try how he may to please her. Even when he learns that two of Penna's recent lovers have died as an indirect result of involvement with her, he can't help himself from falling ever deeper in love, no matter where he hits bottom. She has opened Zeno's sexual passion, as well as turned him on to magic mushrooms, LSD, and increasingly dangerous detective missions.

Through it all, she makes it clear that she'll never be the settling down kind. "Yes, I've done time," she says, when he asks if she's ever been married. For her, the successfully recovered tapes will buy a year of roaming in South America, a goal which puts Zeno in the painful position of knowing he will lose her the minute they succeed in their mission.

When one of his former philistine friends sees where Zeno is headed and tries to stop him, he says he doesn't want to be stopped, even if he does become another Penna "victim." In a few brief passionate days, he is ready to concede that his life of the mind wasn't a real life anyway.

On another level, the novel is an essay on modern art, which asks if art goes to the soul of modern life, or if art has become comfortably repetitive, breaking down open doors at best, and is better described as decoration. Indeed, one of the complications in the story is that Baroda himself thought that art was dead-and if he was right, then what makes a forgery after all, the novel asks in pauses in the action. What is real art; what is phantom art; what is a real life and what is a forgery? Those questions converge in Bramann's book in a most compelling way.

Of further interest to lovers of the social and natural landscape of Western Maryland and West Virginia, the action and deliberations of "Phantom Doors" take place in these highly textured rural settings-giving us a sophisticated New York story set in Garrett and Mineral Counties. As a resident of these counties, the reviewer appreciates how well Bramann knows and loves these landscapes.

But wherever one is from, readers will enjoy and learn from this tightly constructed, richly textured novel. Bramann has given us the best of the mystery genre: suspense, humor, rich metaphor, loving description, and something to think about.

The novel is published by G. Aston Nelson Books; trade paperback $11.90. It is available at local book stores, or through Amazon Books.

The Arizona Daily Star

Tucson, Sunday, March 1, 1998

In the temples of ancient Egypt, videographer Zeno Venn explains to his client, art dealer Barry Ashton, "Temple worshippers had to pass through a series of gates and doors;" the last door they found was painted on the wall, unopenable. Art historians called it the "false door."

This is almost too close for comfort for Ashton, who owns 18 doors decorated by the famous artist Basil Baroda. Baroda's widow claims Ashton's doors are fakes. Ashton sends Venn out to find tape footage of a Baroda interview made by the mysterious Penna Sewell. He hopes the Sewell interview will prove that his doors are genuine.

The search for the tapes sends Venn through onr door after another, searching for the Baroda tapes. Until, finally, a corpse turns up.

Bramann has a flat writing style that blossoms unexpectadly into interesting metaphors. He has written a mystery that should also appeal to fantasy fans.

On March 28, from 3 to 5 p.m., Bramann will be signing "Phantom Doors" at Clues Unlimited, Tucson's mystery bookshop, at 123 S. Eastbourne Ave. (in Broadway Village at Broadway and Country Club).

"Understanding the End of Art"

Back to Forum Main Page