As author Michael Finkel says, he is drawn to the stories of “misfits and scallywags”. In his most recent book, The Art Thief; A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession, he tells the story of Stephàne Breitwieser, the infamous art thief responsible for over 300 thefts of art across Europe valued at nearly 2 billion dollars. Breitwieser preferred small, regional museums and cathedrals – places where both foot traffic and security were thin. His girlfriend served as his lookout. He was outrageously successful largely because, unlike most art thieves, he wasn’t interested in selling the art he stole. He was an aesthete, often moved to tears by the beauty of a piece and wanted nothing more than to be surrounded by his acquired treasures. He stored and displayed his booty in two rooms upstairs in his mother’s house, where he lived with his girlfriend. Like many addicts, his appetite only grew with each successful caper – his delusions of grandeur and invincibility leading him to take greater chances – ultimately, resulting in his capture and arrest – and implicating his girlfriend and his mother in his crimes.
In True Story, Finkel wrote about Christian Longo, a man who murdered his wife and three children in Oregon and then took an alternative identity in Mexico – the identity of none other than journalist Michael Finkel, New York Times reporter. When Finkel discovered that a murderer had been using his identity as an alias and was in prison, he wrote to him and asked for an interview. Those interviews became the basis for his book, which was made into a movie by Brad Pitt’s production company in 2015, starring Jonah Hill, James Franco, and Felicity Jones.
In The Stranger in the Woods, Finkel tells the story of Christopher Knight, a twenty-year-old man who disappeared into the Maine woods, living in a tent, and stealing food and supplies from unoccupied nearby cabins. Knight did not talk to another human being for twenty-seven years. After his capture and imprisonment, Finkel wrote to him and Knight agreed to a series of interviews that ultimately became the book, a book Knight considers his biography.
These stories, along with countless others that Finkel covered during his time as a journalist, add up to an astounding career – and reveal a remarkably gifted storyteller – who has an unassuming, unjudgmental approach to his subjects, patiently waiting for them to gain confidence in him as their scribe. Finkel has the gift of gab, whether in French as he interviewed Breitwieser, or in English as he spoke with Longo, or as in the case of Christopher Knight, a patient reporter comfortable with long periods of silence.
The Art Thief, A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession is a propulsive read, meticulously researched and compellingly told. I look forward to Finkel’s future books.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my interview with Michael Finkel on June 22 at 7:00 pm and the 24th at 6:00 am on WTIP Radio or stream it from the web at http://www.wtip.org.