Books: Artists of Darkness

In Patrick McGrath's grimly absorbing new novel, a painter couple go down--and down--together

As a novelist, and a very fine one, Patrick McGrath has specialized in the modern Gothic, books in which madmen of one kind or another work their wiles. But his superb and unwholesome new novel, Port Mungo (Knopf; 242 pages), is not about anything so simple as abnormal psychology. It's about the brutal impulses available to anyone, especially artists, who would let slip the loose restraints of civilization.

As a 17-year-old art student in London in the 1950s, Jack Rathbone meets the already established Scottish painter Vera Savage. Thirteen years older, she's a nasty if bewitching specimen--brilliant when she cares...