50 shades of shocking in convoluted art-world thriller
Fiction: Domina, LS Hilton, Zaffre, hbk, 320 pages, €18.19
Readers might have expected the 50 Shades phenomenon to have spawned countless imitations, but relatively few managed to break through the mainstream the way EL James's best-seller did. LS Hilton's Maestra was one exception - though not exactly of mass-market appeal, the smutty art-world thriller was a popular hit last year. The first instalment in a trilogy followed the sexual exploits of Judith Rashleigh, a rapacious art historian who goes on the run after uncovering some highly lucrative art fraud at a top London auction house.
When Domina opens, our anti-heroine is running a gallery in Venice, under the name Elisabeth Teerlinc. She is invited to assess the art collection of a Russian oligarch, and soon becomes embroiled in an elaborate scheme to track down an alleged Caravaggio drawing - despite the fact that Caravaggio never drew a sketch in his life.
The quest takes Judith from Venice through Ibiza, Paris, Belgrade and St Moritz, where she hobnobs with the super-rich and indulges in some unrestrained name-dropping.
All of this glamour contrasts with the griminess of Judith's sex life - seedy group-sex parties and one-night-stands with lads on tour bearing "an angry constellation of red spots on the underside of his arse, which made me almost love him" (unsurprisingly, this one is not for those of a sensitive disposition).
Hilton, who grew up in working-class Liverpool, has furnished Judith with more of a backstory this time around, delving into her mother's alcoholism and bleak early life.
In the first book, Hilton had the good sense to distract readers from incomprehensible plot points with garishly provocative sex scenes. The sequel, despite starting with a graphic rendezvous, finds Judith losing her sex drive, and goes a good 200 pages without any of the eye-watering bonking readers have come to expect.
Hilton evidently tries to make up for the hiatus with an astoundingly overblown (ahem) encounter with a 7ft tall Serbian war criminal. The preamble finds Judith's "juices" threatening to destroy her Lanvin dress and nearly drown her in her date's Aston Martin, before a ludicrous scene in which she has a thundering orgasm against the ceiling as he holds her entire body in the air above his head.
Domina is certainly an unconventional thriller, but readers looking for a challenge may find themselves thwarted as the brain-twisting plot spirals into evermore convoluted heights. If you can hang on through pages of art research info-dump, it becomes compulsively readable - like a ritzy 50 Shades meets The Da Vinci Code. It's got sex, shopping, a few Old Masters and plenty of murder - what more could you want?