Monday, August 22, 2016

SoHo No-no

In C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, helpful senior tempter Screwtape offers advice to his nephew, the novice Wormwood, on how to turn his "patient" towards the infernal realms. Despite what many say, Screwtape warns, the pursuit of pleasure will not be enough by itself, for real pleasure and joy are the province of the Enemy. Screwtape longs for the day when Hell's minions can create a truly artificial pleasure, one which humans will pursue avidly but find utterly empty when finally achieved. Success at this endeavor is promised regularly but still eludes the best demonic efforts.

Uncle Screwtape would be very happy with the cast of Richard Vines' debut murder mystery, SoHo Sins. Almost to a man and woman they've been hollowed out by decadence into walking voids of manic ennui, scrambling to fill themselves with the emptiness of each other.

Amanda Oliver has been murdered, and her husband Philip has confessed to the crime but his degenerative brain disease makes his confession suspect. His lawyer hires an investigator to probe the crime, and the investigator uses his friend art dealer Jackson Wyeth (!) as his guide to the strange world of the SoHo art scene in which all of them moved. Wyeth is also one of Philip's oldest friends and wonders if his increasingly unbalanced pal may have shot Amanda -- unless it was Philip's first ex-wife, Angela, or his new mistress, Claudia. Or one of the someone else's we meet along the way.

Although this is Vines' first novel, his role editing a major art magazine has obviously sharpened his writing skills. Jackson has a barbed and cynical wit deployed to excellent effect as he tries to help uncover what really happened when Amanda died. Since Vines has also curated exhibitions at several museums, he knows the world of his novel and offers vivid pictures of its cast and their scene.

Which is really the problem. Every last one of these people is creepy, except for the ones who are downright sickening. Their casual cruelty towards each other doesn't come off any better when we see it stems not from any great passion, only appetite. None of these people actually hate -- they would have to start caring to hate, and caring wouldn't fit the image. Jackson, our narrator, is no better and may in fact be worse given how much information his introspective musing asides offer about what's in his head.

A mystery is generally built around the question of a crime and who committed it. Murder mysteries ask, "Who killed the victim?" But in SoHo Sins, the only thing that sets the murder victim apart from those characters still walking around is that she's dead on the outside, while they're all just dead on the inside, and "Get me out of here" replaces "Whodunit?" as the reader response.

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