Photograph of the Babydoll Lounge in downtown New York, 1990s. © Grégoire Alessandrini / www.nyc90s.com.

Amanda Oliver, wife of high-tech mogul and art collector Philip Oliver, has been shot dead in the couple’s Prince Street loft. So begins SoHo Sins (Hard Case Crime, 2016), the newly released crime novel by Richard Vine, managing editor of A.i.A. The story is set in the late 1990s, which Vine see as a key transition period “when the woeful money sickness that dominates the current art scene began to take hold,“ as he said in an interview with Travis Jeppesen. In this condensed excerpt from Chapter 2, art dealer Jackson Wyeth finds himself swiftly drawn into the case.

 

Once I sobered up the next morning, a question kept coming into my head. What is the normal way to react to the violent death of your spouse? Maybe there is no proper answer, really. Only the stunned queer things we do automatically, because they seem expected—or, if not expected, inescapable—when the pain is new. Philip, as soon as he discovered his partner’s body jumbled and blood-soaked in a living room chair, walked into the local police station and offered a benumbed self-indictment: “My name is Philip Oliver, and I believe I murdered my wife.”

That expression of grief might seem a little strange in other parts of town, but all this occurred south of Houston Street, back when SoHo was the new-art capital of the world. Though I am sure of few things in life, I am willing to bet that a dozen far more peculiar events took place in the neighborhood that day. They just weren’t linked to any official crimes.

In my gallery a few days later, I got a call from Hogan, who was already at work on the case.

“You’re good buds with this Philip Oliver, right? The husband?”

“Sadly, yes.”

“How well do you know him?”

“Well enough to sell him second-rate paintings at first-rate prices. We’re like brothers.”

There was a brief and indefinable noise at the other end. “Are you trying to be a hard-ass about this?”

“Maybe, I’ve had some pretty good lessons, thanks to you.” Then my tone changed. “Philip and I have been close for half my life. How would you like me to behave?”

“You could deal with it straight. Meanwhile, just remind me to stay out of your old-pal category.”

“Too late, Hogan. But don’t worry. You won’t be buying any Lucio Fontana monochromes on your lousy pay.”

“No, not if my luck holds out.” The line crackled for a moment. “Screw you, Jack. And screw your money, too.”

As you can probably tell, Hogan and I go back a long way. We were restless boys together, bumbling through adolescence in a small town upstate. Eventually, a few years after hitting the city at eighteen, we went very different ways—myself to the Institute of Fine Arts and the gallery business; Hogan to the Marines and, after the war, to the New York Police Department. Now he works as a private investigator.

“So do you think this crazy-man act of Oliver’s is for real?” he asked.

“It’s been going on for two years.”

“Sure, but is the guy clever enough to fake it that long in order to throw us off him as a suspect?”

“I thought he confessed.”

“That’s right. Marched into the First Precinct out of the rain, went straight up to the intake counter and started blathering. McGuinn led him inside, and the rich fool signed a statement. Thing is, his story rambles all over the place, and half the details don’t match what the cops found at the crime scene.”

“What did they find?”

“This Amanda, his wife—she was a friend of yours, too?”

“Of course.”

“A good-looking woman?”

“For her age.”

“Then you don’t want to know.”

I waited. Silence, I learned long ago, is Hogan’s principal form of mercy. In his line of work, he has a lot to keep mum about.

“She was shot in the back of the head with a couple of soft-nosed slugs,” he said finally.

“Twice?”

“At a slight downward angle. The bullets flattened and blew out through her forehead and left cheek.”

“All right, I get the picture.”

“I could show you the photos, but I don’t think you’d enjoy them.”

Something inside me seemed to falter and drop. Against my own wishes, I thought about Mandy on the warm fall night I first saw her, her sharp bones flashing as she danced with the white-haired raconteur Victor Borge after a dinner party at the Danish consul’s apartment on Fifth Avenue. The lights had been lowered, and we could see the dark treetops of Central Park beyond the stone rim of the balcony. Windows in the far high-rises glowed yellow, like heirloom gold, above the thick black branches. I pictured Mandy again in that ivory silk dress, laughing at the old man’s jokes as she danced, her green eyes welling with tears—and then I tried not to think about her delicate face anymore.

“What do you say?” Hogan asked. “Is her husband slick enough to plan something like this two years in advance? Could he be pulling a stunt like ‘the Chin’?”

I’d almost forgotten about Vincent Gigante. When I first moved to SoHo, the aging mob boss used to shuffle through the downtown streets in a bathrobe and slippers, mumbling nonsense to a “caretaker.” The big idiot charade, intended to throw off the feds, cast Gigante as mentally incompetent, too crazy to command the highly profitable Genovese syndicate he was actually running from a social club in the Village.

“Philip is extremely vital.”

“Meaning?”

“He built his company from nothing, from a warehouse space in Queens, in twenty-five years. Now he’s got his own little fiefdom, O-Tech, a new-media spin-off of his father’s rust-belt enterprise, Oliver Industries.”

“So he had a head start.”

“It wasn’t that easy. The old man was self-made, a nobody, and as tight as a virgin. Philip took his MBA from Wharton, where he learned a bit—very painfully—about social privilege. Afterwards, he played possum at Sunrise Components for five years, until the morning he breezed in, holding a majority of stock proxies, and took over the business.”

“Sounds like a guy who calculates,” Hogan said.

“Guile is part of Philip’s charm. When he wanted to beat out Palo Alto Consolidated, he spent three years buying their top execs away one by one, then fired the lot of them on the same June day, once he’d picked their brains clean.”

“Right. I got a lot of tales like that in my chat with Bernstein yesterday. So, tell me something I don’t know.”

“Philip is a terrific art customer, a truly generous man—and capable of just about any degree of cunning you care to imagine.”

“Or maybe he’s genuinely loony,” Hogan said. “He’s got a medical file a yard deep that says so.”

“But medical opinions can be bought?”

“With his dough, he could buy the whole New York hospital system.”

“You want me to talk to him?”

“Just tell me how he seems to you now. Lots of people put on a good act, until the bodies start to bleed. Then sometimes they get antsy, maybe fall out of character. It takes someone who knows them well to spot the crack.”

“Anything else?”

“Yeah. I want you to go over to the apartment with me. Don’t worry; Mrs. Oliver’s body is long gone. I need you to tell me if anything seems to be missing, if the physical setup looks off. You know the place pretty well, don’t you?”

“I leased it to Philip and Mandy eight years ago. I’ve been there countless times since.”

“Good. See you in half an hour.”

Occasionally, I wonder why I let myself get pulled into helping Hogan. But if it weren’t this complication in my life it would be something else, probably less respectable. That’s the tradeoff. Keep yourself occupied, or you might end up examining your own acts and desires—a decidedly unappealing prospect.

“This Oliver guy may or may not be nuts,” Hogan said, “but he sure had one lucid moment when he called Bernstein from the precinct. The big gun himself was down there in about five minutes and practically bitch-slapped McGuinn. Holding a distraught husband without a shred of physical evidence, just because the poor, shocked spouse—a man with a certified brain disorder—had babbled some nonsense after coming home to find his wife with her face blown away. Brutal, outrageous—and maybe grounds for a full-bore harassment suit.”

“I can just hear him.”

“Anyway,” Hogan said, “thanks for turning the lawyer-king on to me.”

“You can thank Philip, really. He had Bernstein call me, asking if I knew an investigator who could make his way around SoHo. I lied and said you were an old hand.”

“Well, I do know you. It’s like having a second brain.”

“Yes, such as it is.”

Putting Bernstein in touch with him was one of the many small favors Hogan and I had traded. Given my means of livelihood, I feel the need for a little virtuous activity now and then. Tommy McGuinn, out of guilt and gratitude, does the same. But there was more to it this time. This time I was personally involved. Amanda was my friend; Philip was my friend; even Philip’s long-deserted ex-wife, Angela, was my friend. I resented that crime had contaminated one of the buildings I own, that death had intruded on my private domain.

I had already heard a lot about the murder in a general way, of course. The art world buzzed with it all weekend after the Olivers’ cleaning lady came in that Thursday afternoon and found Mandy’s body askew in an armchair. One glance at the corpse up close and the old Polish lady ran out, all a-jabber, to wave down strangers in the rain-smeared street. By then Philip, still wet from a muttering walk, was making his incoherent confession at the police station a few blocks away.

Within hours, rumors were going around the galleries and museums. Not since Ana Mendieta went smash out a Mercer Street window and Carl Andre became suspect number one had there been such division. Back then, the debate was whether the upstart Latina’s death was a drunken accident or an act of jealous rage by her big-name Minimalist husband. With the new case, there was no doubt about the nature of the event, only about who squeezed the trigger and who most wanted Amanda Oliver dead. The story hit the evening news broadcasts, of course, and got major play in the Friday papers. Heiress art collector murdered. Wayward husband has microchip empire, progressive brain disorder, 28-year-old Italian girlfriend.

Hogan didn’t especially care if Philip was guilty or innocent. As a private eye, he simply owed Bernstein solid information; the lawyer could do with it what he pleased, even ignore it if it didn’t help his case. The most useful fi ndings, though, were clearly those that could counter the police theory of the crime. If the cops were going to go after Philip—questioning his actual whereabouts, delving into his private life and his potential motives—Hogan wanted to be there first, doubting the client now in order to save his ass later.