Recent ESPN stuff:
* Notes on Trevor Bauer, Andrew Cashner, and Pat Corbin from Tuesday night
* notes on six top July 2nd signings
* Today’s Klawchat transcript
* Today’s Baseball Today podcast
* And my guest appearance on today’s Fantasy Focus Baseball podcast.
I apologize for how little I’ve been posting here; the draft, followed by a 16-day east coast trip with family, put a serious dent in my blogging time. I’ve still been reading as usual, with the best book I read in June a bit out of my normal interests – Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, Robert Wittman’s memoir of his time at the FBI, where he founded the bureau’s Art Crime Team.
Wittman wisely spends most of the book talking about major cases he helped solve for the FBI, including recoveries of objects as diverse as Goya’s The Swing, North Carolina’s original copy of the Bill of Rights, and a flag used by an African-American army unit during the Civil War. He bookends all of those stories with the attempt to recover several paintings, including a Vermeer and a Rembrandt, stolen from the Isabella Gardner Stuart Museum in Boston in 1990, an attempt that (mild spoiler) was unsuccessful, something Wittman blames largely on bureacracy, infighting, and one particularly obstinate and territorial bureau chief within the FBI. He also includes a little of his own backstory, explaining how he ended up the bureau’s art crime expert, how he learned enough about art and artifacts to go undercover as a crooked art dealer/broker, and how his life was nearly ruined by a car accident that resulted in the death of one of his colleagues.
I’d be stretching to call this a collection of spy stories, but there’s a surprising amount of intrigue involved in stories that you know (other than the final one) are going to more or less work out OK, and are usually very successful. Wittman and co-author John Shiffman, a former investigative reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, manage to work in enough of the personalities of the various thieves and shady dealers with whom Wittman had to negotiate – and was usually also trying to set up, with a SWAT team hanging out in the hotel lobby or in the room next door – to keep the vignettes from feeling paint-by-numbers: Wittman gets the tip, negotiates the deal, and then the bad guys get arrested. The details on how he managed to operate for so long in fairly small underworld circles without being compromised until right before he was due to retire also made for interesting reading, enough so that I wish they’d spent more time discussing backstopping or how he’d cover his tracks after a bust.
My only other criticism is that it’s way too short – even as someone who doesn’t know art, I was interested in the histories of the pieces he was trying to recover, and would gladly have read another dozen such stories between that and the unintentional comedy of the crooks who had the stolen goods. (Really, stealing a Vermeer … I get that the piece is valuable, but you can’t exactly put the thing on eBay and get 90 cents on the dollar here. Whatever happened to knocking over a nice jewelry store?) I also thought the back half of the Gardner Stuart story treated the FBI’s internal squabbling a little superficially – it reminded me of the way The Wire often used the FBI to throw an obstacle in the main police characters’ paths – even though in both cases the Bureau probably was a legitimate part of the problem. The idea that the most significant unsolved art theft in U.S. history remains unsolved in large part because one doofus in the Bureau’s Boston office wanted to cut the FBI’s main art crime expert out of the loop should make your blood boil, but at the same time, the allegation could use more substance.
Next up: Anita Loos’ two comic novellas, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes & But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes.