Typically, when you think of the kind of gritty crime fiction repped by Hard Case Crime, the first thing that comes to mind is a private dick operating out of a low-rent office. But in Richard Vine’s debut crime novel SoHo Sins, our narrator hero is far from a struggling, hard-pressed p.i. Instead, the aptly named Jackson Wyeth is a moneyed NYC art dealer, plying his still-lucrative trade at the end of the twentieth century.
Wyeth is coaxed into doing amateur detective work after his wealthy friend and client Philip Oliver walks into a police station stating, “I believe I murdered my wife.” Suffering from dementia caused by a progressive brain disorder, Oliver makes a good prime suspect: a serial philanderer with an artist mistress. The killing, two close shots to the back of the head with soft-nosed slugs, looks to be the act of someone close to the victim, which looks even worse for Wyeth’s friend. Brought into the case by an even older friend, an ex-cop turned p.i. named Hogan, Wyeth agrees to help. “Keep yourself occupied, or you might end up examining your own acts and desires – a decidedly unappealing prospect,” he notes at the start of a case that will test the man in more ways than one.
The investigation takes Wyeth and Hogan into the SoHo scene, which is establishing itself as the “new-art capital of the world.” In this neo-decadent setting we meet the barely functioning Oliver, his mistress Claudia, a shady “artistic” photographer named Paul Morse, Oliver’s first wife Angela and her precocious nymphette daughter Melissa. The deeper Wyeth delves, the seedier the scene becomes until we’re brought into the underworld biz of underage porn, a setting that provides more than one calculatedly discomforting moment for our hero.
At 382 pages, SoHo Sins is a weightier tome than your typical fast-read pulp ‘tec tale, though I personally found that this worked in the book’s favor. Vine’s characters live in a realm built on moral ambiguity (“You don’t deal successfully in art if you dwell on where the money comes from and how it gets made,” Wyeth says of his own profession at one point), which is clearly delineated by the book’s melancholy finale. As a narrator, Wyeth is sometimes given more to social commentary than to storytelling but that’s perhaps to be expected from an author who has also worked as editor of an arts magazine. In the end, Sins proves a challenging read that may not suit Hard Case Crime readers looking for a crisp and fast-paced diversion, but it’s a rewarding one for those willing to venture somewhat deeper.