Book Review: Maria Hummel’s “Still Lives”

BY D.M. Olsen

It’s the opening night of Still Lives at the Roque Museum and it’s the buzz of the art scene in Los Angeles. It’s also the wildly anticipated return of Kim Lord, who has conjured up a twelve-piece exhibit portraying the murdered bodies of famous victims including Elizabeth Short, Gwen Araujo, Chandra Levy, and Nicole Brown Simpson. The only issue is, Kim Lord never shows up.

The story follows Maggie Richter, the in-house editor tasked with creating the collection’s written pieces. Early in the story, Maggie receives a mysterious document to copy edit that donates the entire collection to the Roque. The disappearance seems staged at first, as Kim’s somewhat unorthodox method comes to light: Kim has spent years getting into the lives and minds of the victims in order to portray their deaths via photograph, then via painting. However, as the days pass and Kim Lord fails to reappear, evidence of foul play begins to surface. When the police get involved, Maggie’s ex—and Kim Lord’s current—boyfriend becomes the lead suspect. He is arrested shortly after entrusting Maggie with a potential piece of evidence that pulls her into the center of a citywide investigation. Also complicating events is that Kim hasn’t had a successful show in over a decade and wouldn’t seem to be in the financial position to donate millions in art to the Rocque.

As the riveting plot unfolds, we are taken, in spectacular detail, through the back stage of L.A.’s art scene complete with silver-spoon scions, mega-collectors, and seedy detectives. Hummel’s depiction of the City of Angels doesn’t seem to be steeped in nostalgia either, as her character, Maggie, describes it as “immense, overcrowded, and corrupted…It’s also the city where monstrous appetites meet private hopes, again and again, and devour them.”

 Maria Hummel is a wonderful poet (author of House on Fire) and has spent timeworking at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, so her prose packs both a lyrical punch and evokes the authenticity to make the work truly sing. The tapestry woven by Hummel in these pages is as much an elegiac homage to the slain women depicted in the Still Lives collection as it is a literary thriller.

The novel provides both intense, page-turning plot and poignant social introspection, especially in regard to the media fetishization of the killings of beautiful women, and how their deaths have come to define their legacy. As was the case with Laci Peterson, “A missing and pregnant California woman, washed ashore in Richmond within miles of the beached body of her unborn son…[but] Before long, another lovely murdered face will rise beside Laci’s, and Laci will move to the background with the other victims of homicide. Eventually the reason she died will frame her whole existence—and not the infinite reasons she deserved to live.”


David M. Olsen is a full-time insurance broker, writer, editor, and poet. He is an alumnus of Stanford’s OWC program in novel writing and is also an MFA candidate at UCR-Palm Desert. He is at work on a collection of linked short stories, a novel, and a chapbook of poetry. David is also the fiction editor and a contributor at The Coachella ReviewIn a past life, David won awards as a chef and brewer. He is a Cicerone, Sommelier, and is a certified pizzaiolo trained by 11-time world champion Tony Gemignani. He resides in Pacific Grove, California.