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Georgia O'Keeffe Lost and Found : THE ART OF SURVIVAL by A.E. Maxwell (Doubleday: $17.95; 272 pp.; 0-385-24846-6)

June 18, 1989|Zan Dubin | Dubin is a Times staff writer.

"The Art of Survival" is a slick, well-crafted mystery complete with bloody murder, a car chase, tax fraud and a complex plot in which nefarious villains clash with an irresistibly appealing hero. It's also a sensitive expose on human nature written with knowing insight as well as plenty of humor and wry wit.

Perhaps unfortunately for thrill seekers, the latter outshines the former. For those who enjoy delving into the human psyche, that's good news. Either way, however, the book is well worth reading.

Husband and wife writing team, Ann and Evan Maxwell, using the pen name A. E. Maxwell, bring back their savvy, suave, sexy protagonist Fiddler for the fifth time.

Attempting--again--to separate himself from the ex-wife he can't live with and can't live without, Fiddler departs Southern California in a fast car, ending up in Santa Fe. There, the modern-day outlaw addicted to adrenaline and risk meets with dirty business in the high-style, high-stakes art world of the "rich and shameless."

In a sensational news story that rivals Andrew Wyeth's unveiling of the Helga pictures, a previously unknown Georgia O'Keeffe painting is discovered by a shifty Santa Fe art dealer, who announces the stunning find with great fanfare.

O'Keeffe, it seems, had created the white skull and crimson flower painting in the summer of 1930 but dumped it on a garbage heap, deeming it unworthy. Had it not been for the foresight of one Juanita Sanchez Quinones of Las Trampas, N.M., the work would have been destroyed.

The canvas, quickly snatched up by an unscrupulous land developer for $3.6 million, is soon stolen however. Have no fear though, Fiddler is here. Reunited with his ex-wife Fiora, he sets out to solve the scandal, tangling with the slimy art dealer and wealthy developer, a sloe-eyed artist doomed by her desire for acclaim and love, and a vengeful IRS man who stinks like "eau de cat box."

The Maxwells excel at creating multifaceted, appealing characters. Fiddler is impossible not to like. He's clever, ultra-confident and knows a lot about a lot, from expensive cars to fine art. Yet he's also vulnerable, a failure at snuffing out his affection for Fiora despite deep problems that repeatedly force the pair apart. Fiora is a tough cookie too; strong, independent and smart. Yet she can't stay away from Fiddler.

It is with these believeable, conflicted characters that the authors develop the most effective, compelling element of their book, a trenchant but lighthearted look at human behavior.

One theme within this arena that comes up repeatedly involves self-destructive perfectionism. Fiddler gave up the violin as a young boy, unable to accept his own limitations. Throwing the instrument beneath the wheels of a car, "I'd been too young then to live with the difference between good and perfect," he says.

The subject surfaces in his problematic relationship with Fiora. "It's destructive to fight something you love simply because you can't do it perfectly," she says. "Nothing human is perfect. Not even love."

In addition, refreshing dialogue and turns of phrase are a delight. Says Fiddler, realizing he's in a tight squeeze: "Harvey had a handful of hair my barber doesn't cut." As a mystery thriller, however, while adequate, the book disappoints. A too-long, uneventful car chase slows momentum, as does too much description in critical moments. Climactic scenes that should keep you on the edge of your seat fail to do so. Perhaps its our overconfidence in Fiddler, whose attitude is sometimes just this side of smug, that strips away a sense of impending danger. His and others' dialogue, even in the most precarious situations, is often too glib.

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