Good Girl, Bad Girl by Christopher Finch is a debut novel featuring private investigator Alex Novalis, who's hunting for a missing girl in the art world of 1968's New York City (available August 6, 2013).
Booted from his gig at the D.A.’s office investigating art crime—primarily forgeries and fraud—Novalis isn’t all that keen on the idea of hunting down a rogue teenage girl, especially one who’s technically an adult. He would also prefer not to be answering to her wealthy parents or skulking around his old haunts in pursuit of an artist he finds distasteful at best, a guy last seen with the blonde, ethereal (and aren’t they always in this sort of story?) Lydia Kravitz.
“…I don’t know if you believe in evil, but to me it is something very real, something tangible that curdles the soul. Lydia has that quality of curdling the soul. What makes it so much worse is that she appears to be such an innocent. An angel. It’s an illusion.
Good Girl, Bad Girl is quite noir and at times it’s hard not to picture the classic P.I. in his trenchcoat and hat, even though Novalis is a bit more modern, a lot more artsy, and way more enlightened when it comes to the “gals.” What he is, rather, is a guy who likes to drink well enough, but given a choice he’d pick a joint. He knows art, artists, and has good tastes, but he’s cynical though perhaps not so much as some of his friends in art scene.
“Let me give you one bit of advice,” said Wolfe. “If you become an artist—and I hope you make it—don’t forget that you’re still going to be a worker. Nothing more, nothing less. You’ll get plenty of practice, because if you make it, you’re going to drive a fucking cab first, or serve tables, or learn to put up drywall —”
“I can already put up drywall,” said the kid, huffily.
“Then you’re on your way,” said Wolfe. “But what I’m trying to tell you is that your paintings may hang on on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art, you may be feasted by Wall Street princelings, and feted by titans of the military-industrial complex, but it doesn’t mean shit. Whatever happens, you’re still working for the Man. He may pay thousands of bucks for your paintings, and tell you you’re the greatest genius to grow his hair long since Leonardo da Vinci, but you’re still down there with the paid help, just like the butler, the caddy, the family attorney, the crooked accountant, the hooker, and the fag decorator.”
Novalis' office is classic pulp, including the safe with the dame’s mysterious gun and the negligent cleaning lady. (The lack of modern technology doesn’t hurt the resemblance either.)
I grabbed the phone book and looked up his number. He was unlisted. As I sat there, turning over the possibilities, I reached into my pocket for my last Gauloise—a nouvelle vague affection of mine—crumpled the package, and tossed it into the wastebasket under my desk. It was half full. Then I noticed that there was still ash in the ashtray, and the things on my desk top—the Selectric, the yellow pads, the HB pencils, the Mont Blanc pen, the bronze souvenir of the Perisphere and Trylon from the 1939 Word’s Fair—had not been straightened out. When I checked further, the windowsill was covered in a film of New York soot you could write your name in. Mrs. Wilcox had been a no-show.
And after awhile, you find you like Novalis, and for the most part, you also like Lydia’s friend, Andrea, who ranges from demure to racy to defiant. All the things girls-become-women are at that age. As is Lydia in her way. She’s dangerous and troubled and looking for something ill-defined. All of which, the older Novalis observes and describes as someone who’s been there and is glad he doesn’t have to return.
The insight into the art world and the inhabitants is fun and feels almost like you’re following someone with privileged access to an era long gone. Gone, too is another character, the setting of New York at the time, long before gentrification and bans on smoking and Big Gulps.
Soho, in those days, was just a godforsaken industrial ghetto wedged between Little Italy and Even Littler Italy. It didn’t have a proper name. Firemen called it Hell’s Hundred Acres because so many of them had been killed or maimed in fires there. Other people called it the loft district and left it at that because that’s what it was—two dozen square blocks of Victorian loft buildings that, until a few years earlier, had been packed with sweatshops and other shabby businesses scavenging at the low end of the commercial food chain—manufacturers of novelties and cheap jewelry, dealers in rags and scrap metal. Sure, the buildings were of enormous historical importance, masterpieces of cast iron, and part of New York’s cultural heritage, but who knew? They’d been neglected for decades, were coated in grime, and pissed on by dogs and bums, and by Robert Moses who wanted to tear half of them down to make way for a ten-lane elevated expressway.
The plot itself progresses from a simple missing person’s case to a race against time to stop a protest gone deadly wrong. To tell more, though, would spoil the surprise.
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Neliza Drew is a tofu-eating teacher and erratic reader with a soft spot for crime fiction. She lives in the heat and humidity of southern Florida with three cats and her adorable hubby. She listens to way too much music, writes often, and spends too much time on Twitter (@nelizadrew).
Read all posts by Neliza Drew on Criminal Element.