Review by C.J. Bunce
Crime stories are full of dark places and dark characters, characters like Waldo Lydecker in Vera Caspary’s Laura, Rebecca DeWinter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Jim Williams in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Barbara Sabich in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, Catherine Trammell in Joe Eszterhas’s Basic Instinct, Noah Cross in Robert Towne’s Chinatown. But what if you were to populate an entire story with only the most vile of these characters, everyone despicable, reprehensible, soulless. Then you would have Richard Vine’s crime novel Soho Sins.
The New York City in Vine’s novel can’t really exist, and if it does it explains a lot about its perceived debauchery-filled subculture of million dollar art deals and even bigger real estate deals. Most noir novels take you into places that dip into the dark, but along the way you meet a few “cool” characters, characters that have a trait or two you’d want to emulate, even if they are bad at their very core in a nice, pulp novel way. That’s not the case in the Soho of Vine’s New York of two decades past (for those not familiar with New York, Soho is the lower Manhattan neighborhood known for its artist lofts and art galleries). Nobody is personable, likeable, enviable, charming, or authentic. And this ugliness means that as you forge ahead in a densely crafted 384 pages, the way Vine tells his story and the way he incorporates the shock and awe of the depravity, self-hatred, and apathy, is necessary to keep you engaged. To Vine’s credit, it all works, complete with a couple of eleventh hour whoppers at the end of the tale. Not bad at all for a first time novelist.
Vine takes you on a journey through New York City that illustrates in fine detail everything that is bad about the city, primarily in its wealthiest, seediest corners. Vine brings his years of experience in the contemporary art world to provide a peep show peek into a world where artists and dealers live for no purpose other than to impress and outdo each other. Our tour guide is a member of this vapid class, art dealer and real estate owner Jackson Wyeth, whose lack of true compassion and concern for anyone including himself at first make it difficult to tag along. Vine partners him with an old friend, an ex-cop private eye named Hogan, who is a welcome relief from all the banality of the modern art trade and its actors, but ultimately, he and Wyeth are just two sides of a tarnished coin. Hogan is after the murderer who shot Wyeth’s best friend Philip Oliver’s wife Angela, and Hogan uses Wyeth to introduce him to the art scene, a close-knit club, to prove whether or not Philip committed the murder. And, by the way, Philip has already confessed to the crime.
In fairness to the 1990s art scene, Wyeth exists in the cruddier ranks of the modern art world–the artists and their art that is witnessed by P.I. Hogan as he maneuvers from suspect to suspect is the fringe stuff, performance art where artists hang upside down by their nipples, incorporate used needles, and create lude photography meant to exploit rather than enlighten. But so many inside the modern art world have heaped praise on Soho Sins (one art museum director quoted in the cover blurb praises Vine for “bringing the underbelly of the art world to the forefront”) that the reader is left to wonder if that world is any different today. And the book isn’t really about the art, as much as the people who use art as an excuse to make money, drink, take drugs, cheat on their spouses, and only pretend to be alive. Anyone could have murdered Angela Oliver. Hogan spares no character as he meets up with Philip’s ex-wife, his current girlfriend, his wife’s lover, an entire world of art world rogues, even Wyeth.
An amalgam of the seediest episodes of Law & Order that drifts in and out of Lolita territory, but hovers closer to the approach of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil–a visit to a strange, new place, but without the colorful, quirky characters–Vine’s story really kicks in after the first 50 pages, and then you’ll be compelled to stick around until the end.
Every unique world deserves a story as detailed and enthralling as Soho Sins. But don’t be surprised if by the end you wish Richard Vine had spent his past 25 years in some place less repulsive. Now available in paperback, Soho Sins is available here at Amazon.