The story is told in the present tense by Martin, an academic who has formed the ambition to branch out as an art historian. By chance he comes across a painting in the house of a neighbour which he thinks may be a lost work by Breugel. At once he forms the plan of acquiring the painting by deception. This, he expects, will simultaneously establish his reputation and make him a very large amount of money. There follows a prolonged series of deceptions and self-deceptions, involving Martin's wife (herself an art historian), the neighbour who owns the piece, and the neighbour's wife. Layer upon layer of complexity build up as Martin becomes ever more deeply mired in the attempt to persuade himself that he is really acting from the best motives rather than mere vulgar concupiscence.
Throughout the book Martin is nagged by recurrent doubts concerning his identification of the painting, and this leads him to conduct research in London which he hopes will confirm his judgement. We therefore get a number of interludes in which the art history and the political history of the Netherlands in the sixteenth century are discussed at some length. These are certainly interesting in their own right but I did find that they slowed the narrative down. I'm generally an admirer of Frayn's novels, which seem to me to be among the most intelligent and witty of those being written today, and this one possesses both of the above qualities in abundance. However, readers who are only mildly interested in art history and the art market may find some of the background information over-detailed, and this is not my favourite among Frayn's books, for that reason. It is, nevertheless, well worth reading.