SoHo Sins by Richard Vine is an intriguing debut novel about the underworld of the New York art scene (Available July 19, 2016).
“You can’t deal successfully in art if you dwell on where the money comes from and how it gets made. I concern myself with my clients’ tastes and credit ratings, not their ethics.” —Jackson Wyeth
Nothing like an admixture of art plus murder for a mystery-fused suspense tale. A classic example is Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey, where a vain man's portrait ages as he stays youthful and in a final fit of indignation, he stabs at his degenerate likeness with horrific repercussions. The film The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) catches Humphrey Bogart, as Geoffrey Carroll, painting images of his wives before planning their deaths. (There's just something, dare I say, creepy when the camera zooms in on the canvas of these human creations and that otherworld of color, seeming to hold court against mankind's devious nature, enacting lustful revenge.)
Richard Vine, in SoHo Sins, mines another vein of the murderous side in the art world, where dealers and wealthy collectors acquire Rembrandt’s and Picasso’s like the rest of us buy bubblegum. Similar to Grey and Carroll, the SoHo characters have cultivated an extravagant, enclosed nook all their own, surrounded by Pollack’s and Kandinsky’s, while lounging in Wassily chairs in front of modernist cube-shaped tables.
In this cold backdrop, affluent socialite Amanda Oliver is slain in her loft and her husband Phillip immediately confesses. He's a bit of a heel for having walked out on his first wife, Angela, and their daughter, Melissa, then carrying on a steady affair, while married to Amanda, with a twenty-eight-year-old Italian model named Claudia…plus multiple other liaisons.
Still, Phillip’s friend Jackson Wyeth (rather too perfect a name for an art dealer) doesn't believe this immoral nature is necessarily a path to murder, and he encourages Phillip's personal lawyer to hire a gumshoe friend named Hogan to begin corroborating Phillip's alibi to get to the bottom of the slaying. Hogan isn't as familiar with the SoHo art scene and asks Wyeth to accompany him to navigate. As the unlikely twosome nose about the immaculate “crypt” where Amanda was shot in the head, Wyeth muses:
It was more than just a matter of imagining, too vividly, what had happened at that juncture of corridor and open space. Something was off in the apartment itself. There were no signs of ransacking or theft, not so much as a broken wineglass. Yet the very normalcy of the environment felt bogus, as though the rooms were sworn to unwilling secrecy, the designer objects longing to reveal some rude, unspeakable truth.
Wyeth guides us through SoHo Sins in a relaxed, knowledgeable manner. (Had a most peculiar impression that the protagonist's voice was that of Meyer from John D. Macdonald's Travis McGee series—yes, a quirky notion.) With Hogan in tow, Wyeth begins the tried-and-true detective examination of all parties associated with Amanda and Phillip Oliver. Standard genre track.
Where SoHo Sins goes beyond expectations is in the ironic intricacies of the community’s entanglements—Wyeth remains friends with Phillip’s first wife and precocious daughter and, though he was also a friend of Amanda’s, he had no qualms introducing Phillip to other women. The engaging morality tête-à-tête between Wyeth and Hogan intensifies as the story progresses. Here’s some lucid introspection from Wyeth as he ponders one’s fall from the moral high ground:
A moral change is like aging. The alterations are subtle and deep, the damages cumulative. There is no way to perceive them, except by looking away and looking again, as one must to see the passage of time on the face of a clock.
Mr. Vine supplies plenty of juicy suspects, from Phillip's executive goons to Amanda's boy-toy on the side, seemingly all having a damn good reason why Mrs. Phillip Oliver #2 was better off underground. Even Wyeth, from my armchair detecting, came under scrutiny with his too cool—above the fray—reporting of an incident he'd outwardly rather not be bothered with. The denouement is clever, having built masterfully on a hill of red herrings.
“Write what you know,” dictates the Mark Twain quote, and according to the SoHo back blurb, Richard Vine, as editor of a leading art publication, has an insider’s scoop to this New York microcosm. The streets, buildings, and people become three dimensional, straight off Mr. Vine’s canvas, creating a world that flourishes right alongside other masterpieces from the art world. Even minor characters like Laura, Wyeth’s assistant, are given room to breathe and develop over sixty-five chapters.
Mr. Vine juggles a plethora of different voices quite well. The only character I found to be a minor misstep, or rather a slight glitch, was that of Phillip Oliver. Phillip's disintegration into crazy guy who still runs a major conglomerate wasn’t convincing to me. Mention is made that he could be pulling a mob boss Vincent Louis Gigante (The Chin) “crazy” to spare Claudia or he genuinely has a medical condition that is impairing him. Either way, the words coming out of his mouth didn’t ring organic.
Along a similar line, the opening epigraph from German philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno, "Every work of art is an uncommitted crime,” at first inspection seemed to be just a phrase with some fitting catchwords to begin the story, but upon reading further, in an abstract way, it set the mood for this powerhouse debut.
For a novel about art and murder, it would be a crime not to take a moment to fawn over the cover painting by Robert Maguire (1921-2005), a renowned twentieth century illustrator. A book that brings all the elements together like SoHo Sins to make a pulp reminiscent of the “old days” requires a packaging worthy of the material. The cover art by Mr. Maguire depicting a shady man in a trench coat standing over a brightly dressed woman in a grimy alleyway is certainly appropriate eye candy for this top pulp fiction piece by first time author Richard Vine from the publishing giant, Hard Case Crime.
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David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books and author of The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.