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Literature Review | Headlong, by Michael Frayn

By SRAI News posted 05-12-2021 09:49 AM


Literature Review | Headlong, by Michael Frayn

This series of articles explores literary works that intersect with our professional interests in research, research administration, and university life.

If you enjoyed The Da Vinci Code—or perhaps especially if you didn’t enjoy it—dive into Headlong, its smarter and funnier cousin.

Martin Clay, a British academic philosopher, sees a painting owned by his neighbor and is immediately convinced that it’s a missing masterpiece by Pieter Bruegel. He develops a complicated plan to get the painting for himself. Why? Martin fears that if he tells the owner what it is, it will end up locked in the bank vault of the highest bidder. Public display of the painting is the end that he thinks justifies his means. It’s clear, though, that the wealth and glory that will accrue to the discoverer count for something. Martin surprises himself at first with his skill at perpetrating a con on the painting’s owner. He’s not quite good enough, though, and he bumbles comically through his own stratagems and shady financial maneuvers.

Martin’s wife, Kate, is an actual art historian, and the tension rises between them as Martin pursues his scheme. He’s taken the same approach as Thomas P. F. Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who said, “Trust your first impression. Always trust your immediate kinetic reaction. Don’t think of how it could be possible.” But Martin also vows that he’ll make an airtight case to back up his intuition, before committing all their savings to pull off his plan. So we go along for the ride as he researches Bruegel’s paintings and the history of Spain’s subjugation of the Netherlands in the 1500s. The novel’s first-person narration lets us share Martin’s absorption, his alternating certainty and despair, as he burrows down a historical rabbit hole.

Headlong has many clever touches. For example, the name of Martin’s infant daughter—Tilda—calls to mind the punctuation mark tilde. Now commonly used as a diacritical mark in Spanish, the tilde originated as a mark of contraction to show where letters had been omitted from words in medieval manuscripts. In mathematics, it’s used to indicate either approximation or negation. In other words, the perfect symbol for a never-described painting that may just possibly hold the key to reinterpreting an artist wrapped in mystery.


Frayn, Michael. Headlong. Picador USA, 1999.

McPhee, John. A Roomful of Hovings. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968.


Authored by Rebecca Weaver Rinehart, Pre-award Specialist & Interim IRB Administrator
University of Northern Iowa