July 19 marks the release of SoHo Sins, an art world murder mystery by Richard Vine, managing editor of A.i.A. Here, artist and fellow novelist Travis Jeppesen interrogates the author on his motives, the origins of the tale, and the seamy relationship between art criticism and noir fiction.
TRAVIS JEPPESEN I guess the big surprise for most people will be that you’ve written such a book to begin with! Editors of fine art magazines aren’t supposed to dabble in “lower” genres like hard-boiled mystery–it’s not allowed! How did this book come to fruition? Have you always been a closeted Raymond Chandler aficionado?
RICHARD VINE Ah, a deliberately retro “high-low” critical query about a deliberately retro novel, both coming out of the sensibility of 1990s SoHo. How appropriate. Especially from a guy whose own novels deal with slackers and suicide cults. Aren’t you the literary trickster whose Venice Biennale report for A.i.A. [September 2015] was done in the fictional persona of a cynical, heroin-shooting hipster critic, illustrated by the part-time porn novelist Bjarne Melgaard? “Lower,” indeed. . . . OK, game on.
The “high” answer, Hilton—I mean, Travis—is that visual artists no longer operate with the confining strictures of “noble” (as opposed to “mundane,” “kitsch,” or “popular”) materials, genres, and themes, so why on earth would critics or creative writers do so? Espousing a hierarchy of forms would render a contemporary novelist entirely out of sync with the times—and on the losing side of a battle that was fought in late nineteenth-century France, at the very beginning of modernism, and again in the 1950s with the advent of Pop art. Today, any source and any artistic form is legitimate. The question is: how well do you use it? How much do you make of it?
Secondly, the “low” answer to your question is that I’m too damn old to care what anyone else thinks is a high form or low. I know what speaks to me. Forms are incommensurate; they can’t be productively compared. But skill and passion of execution certainly can. So I ask you: if your heart is broken, do you turn to the piano concertos of a third-rate classical composer, because that’s a “high” form, or to the insuperable grief songs of Hank Williams?
JEPPESEN A lot of artists, writers, and intellectuals have been overt or covert fans of the detective novel. This is something that most people are unaware of. Agnes Martin, whose work is ostensibly about lofty issues like spiritual transcendence, was an Agatha Christie addict. Ludwig Wittgenstein was a great fan of Norbert Davis. But that’s different from actually writing one!
VINE Art critic John Canaday wrote half a dozen mystery novels after his retirement from the New York Times. The British art scholar Iain Pears produces them right now. And why not? A critic is already a kind of detective, analyzing baffling visual evidence in search of coherent explanation that eludes more casual observers. And, with contemporary art, the material under scrutiny is often considered suspect by the general public. So the shift to crime is not as jarring as it might seem.
What’s more, the hardboiled murder-mystery is, in fact, a pretty complex genre, one that not-so-secretly melds two quite “high” intellectual strands. First, it’s a product of the immensely difficult, centuries-long triumph of empiricism (with its logical reasoning on the basis of physical evidence, its successive hypotheses that can be tested and thus proved either valid or false) over the delusions and half-truths of tradition, augury, ideology, religion and other types of superstition or deliberate misdirection. Second, the whodunit is a form infused with the existential dread inherent in post-Nietzschean culture. How do you ground your values—aesthetic, social, moral—once the old assurances (“God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world”) are blown away? Kafka, Beckett, Sartre, Camus and other literary titans are not the only authors who wrestled with that dilemma. So did Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, John D. MacDonald, and—yes—Raymond Chandler. But they did it at a level closer to the streets, to life as we live it day to day.
JEPPESEN I’m glad you said that, because despite my playful line of questioning at the beginning, I think that the “low” genre of mystery is an oft-overlooked deployment zone for philosophical inquiry. Cormac McCarthy said in an interview that the only issues worth writing about are life and death. In a sense, that’s the distilled essence of every mystery novel. Life and death—the weightiest of philosophical issues, right?
VINE Right. Every murder mystery purports to be about the reasons for one death but is also, at a deeper level, about the unreasonableness of all deaths—the core absurdity of the human condition. That’s why my paired protagonists—the art dealer Jackson Wyeth and the private investigator Hogan—make their wry and bitter asides: “Why does anyone kill? For that matter, why does anyone die? I’m still working on that one. For now, let’s have another beer.” The two set out to save Jack’s client and friend from self-condemnation (“My name is Philip Oliver, and I believe I murdered my wife”), but they soon have to wrangle, in their own snide way, with some truly hardcore philosophical issues.
I mean, why do you suppose that murder mysteries pervade our best-seller lists and TV offerings and movies? Because, fundamentally, we all want to know why human beings are born but to die. We all ask ourselves how much real worth—if any—we can wring out of our brief days and nights on what Chandler called “these mean streets.“ Everyone wants to know, and nobody has the answer. But we keep making the investigation, time after time.
JEPPESEN It’s tricky, because you do it so well, that at times the book reads as a satire—not only of the mystery genre, but of course as a satire of the art world. In a way, SoHo Sins de-mystifies the art world for general readers, who might not have any knowledge of how it operates or the nature of the people who populate it. Meanwhile, art world people will find the novel hilarious, when not troubling, because it’s such an apt description of the loftiness and pretensions of the milieu. At the same time, the hardboiled dialogue that’s a hallmark of the genre, which you’ve mastered so well, also works ironically here–I don’t know many people in the art world who are so honest and direct!
VINE Well, I come by the laconic speech pattern pretty naturally. My father left school in the eighth grade and started his adult life as a boxer. When I was boy, he looked and sounded a bit like Humphrey Bogart. He’d tell me about nights in a joint outside Youngstown called the Jungle Inn, where armed men on catwalks watched over the gambling tables below. Two of his acquaintances pulled off the last train robbery east of the Mississippi River. Later, he mellowed and would sometimes recite large chunks of Shakespeare by heart. But he could still drop a wiseass with a right cross at the blink of an eye. After that, I never saw any discrepancy between literary artistry and old-fashioned manliness.
JEPPESEN One could make the case that the novel also serves as a work of discreet art criticism. Certainly, it offers a cynical perspective on the New York art establishment at a particular time—the 1990s, when the novel is set. Is there a particular reason why you chose this period?
VINE Yes, I chose it because I lived it and because it was an important transition period, when the woeful money sickness that dominates the current art scene began to take hold. Hence the importance of the collector Philip Oliver’s wasting illness in SoHo Sins—and its debilitating effect on his mind. The novel is, among many other things, a kind of social etiology. These days, there is an excruciating contrast in our profession between the sincere concern of many artists for aesthetic experience, communality, and social justice versus the self-serving speculative mania (who will get famous? whose prices will soar?) that drives the global art system. I’ve gone back to the era when that rift became a chasm and highlighted its devastation.