IN THE midst of a tug-of-war for possession, a portrait goes missing, spirited away in the heat of a bitter custody battle between the subject’s husband and her painter-turned-lover in 1970s Frankfurt.
The situation is complex: enchanting Irene Adler is the wife of powerful industrialist Peter Gundlach yet in recent times has been living with Karl Schwind, an artist, having left her marriage to pursue an affair.
Both men are equally determined to claim not only the canvas but also Adler as theirs, and a stalemate ensues.
Watching from the sidelines is another contender: the warring men’s naïve but dependable young lawyer (and the story’s unnamed narrator), who has developed an overpowering attraction of his own to the beautiful blonde model.
Each sees Adler as his ideal female incarnation: trophy, muse, damsel in distress.
Unaware of a third man’s interest, Gundlach and Schwind finally decide to settle the outcome of their dispute behind closed doors, with the husband offering to exchange his two-dimensional artwork for its living, breathing star attraction: the ‘woman on the stairs’.
However, neither is able to enjoy victory: within minutes of the handover having been completed, both Adler and the portrait disappear abruptly.
Although her immediate whereabouts are unknown, all three admirers are sure Adler is safe and well.
Decades pass before the first missing piece of the puzzle surfaces, and when it does reappear, the now-valuable painting is half a world away from Germany.
Incredibly, The Woman on the Stairs has been gifted by an anonymous donor to the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney – something the lawyer discovers to his disbelief while visiting Australia on business.
Does its presence mean that Adler, too, is somewhere nearby – if not in the city itself then perhaps hiding out discretely in the surrounding region?