Castro Valley Native's Mystery Thriller Emerges from Art

Author Alec Nevala-Lee finds inspiration in the unlikeliest of art works.

Like many collegiate writers, Alec Nevala-Lee thought it wouldn’t be much trouble to land a full-time job and work on his big debut novel in his spare time.

But free time was sparse at the hedge fund that employed him in New York City, so he left to pursue his writing, full time.

Now 31, the Castro Valley Native and Harvard grad made a new home in Oak Park, Ill. with his wife, Chicago Tribune tech and business reporter Wailin Wong. His debut novel, The Icon Thief, was published earlier this month by New American Library.

While researching potential subject material for his book, Nevala-Lee said he was keeping his eyes peeled for an intriguing work of art, something to build a story around.

He found it with Étant Donnés, the sculpture Marcel Duchamp worked on secretly for 20 years, while telling fans and critics he'd left art to pursue chess. Instead, Duchamp was in Greenwich Village, creating "a tableau, visible only through a pair of peep holes (one for each eye) in a wooden door, of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden and legs spread holding a gas lamp in the air in one hand against a landscape backdrop." The piece, Duchamp's final installation, is housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Nevala-Lee said it's the perfect plot device — enigmatic in its own right and compelling enough to drive a mystery through 396 pages.

"I was amazed that no one had tried it yet," he said.

The result is a mystery thriller centered on Maddy Blume, an art buyer for a Manhattan hedge fund who finds herself immersed in the international art trade, a profession Nevala-Lee said is laced with an "incomparable cast of collectors, traders, investors, and thieves."

He's posted a plot summary of the book, along rave reviews from fellow writers, on his blog, where he writes about the arts, storytelling and publishing daily. A student of art and literature, recently penned an L.A. Times editorial celebrating the influence of Duchamp's "Nu Descendant un Escalier," or "Nude Descending a Staircase."

A sequel to the Icon Thief, titled City of Exiles, is scheduled for publication in December. A third and final installment of the trilogy is expected in 2013.

"The real theme of the book and its two sequels," he said, "is how we impose meaning on the world, especially the past, and art history struck me as a particularly rewarding area for exploring these issues in a vivid and exciting way."

Alec Nevala-Lee is one two authors with Castro Valley ties who'll be reading from their latest novels at the on May 9 starting at 7 p.m. at 22380 Foothill Blvd., Hayward.


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