Helen A. Harrison
“An ornate corpse”
Helen A. Harrison
Poisoned Pen Press, $ 18.99
As I passed the Trinity of Arched Windows on the second floor of the Art Students League on West 57th Street in Manhattan at the age of 20, I knew something important was going on in that building. It could have been the ornate metalwork on the front door or the individual pieces of art that were solemnly displayed in every large window along the wide sidewalk. Little did I know, however, that the top floor studio would be the crime scene in Helen Harrison’s “An Artful Corpse”.
Ms. Harrison’s 1967 throwback to New York City interweaves real-life artists who teach in the League, including Raymond Breinin and Edward Laning, with returning characters from her Art of Murder series, his fictional deputy chief Brian Fitzgerald Wife, Detective Inspector Juanita Diaz and her son Timothy Juan, known as TJ, now in his twenties.
Against this backdrop of the real and the imaginary, she describes the everyday lives of several characters who want to find the murderer of the American mural painter Thomas Hart Benton, who was stabbed with a decorative dagger, wrapped in sheets and arranged in a league on the platform of a model painting studio. (Ms. Harrison states in her confirmations that, in fact, Benton was not murdered in New York as intended, but that he died in his art studio in Kansas City, Missouri.)
The writer creates a dedicated main character in TJ, a sophomore year at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who also draws League Life once a week. In art class he meets and befriends Ellen, who becomes his first serious love interest. When one of her classmates is wrongly suspected of the murder of Benton, they begin a search for the real killer as their relationship develops.
TJ is assisted in his investigation by Hector Morales, a forensic psychology professor who tutored his mother, and another real-life artist, Alfonso Ossorio, a close family friend who encouraged TJ’s interest in art. TJ also appears to have inherited his mother’s intuitive and deductive skills, as well as her lock picking skills (TJ, without his mother knowing, borrows her collection of picks, hooks, and other unlocking tools to access the alleged murderer’s home to enter).
Ellen and TJ’s detective work gives Ms. Harrison a chance to explore New York scenes in the late 1960s, such as the antiwar protests in Washington Square, the burning of draft cards, and the War Resisters League and Peace Center offices where activists helped Men travel to Canada to avoid the draft. These activities come more into focus when Ellen and TJ’s art school friend Bill, before his death, has an argument with Benton in the League’s cafeteria about the war, burns his draft card, and then disappears. Ms. Harrison describes the network of people helping Bill, a young gay man, cross the border in a process known as “fairy dust”.
Ellen and her roommate serve as a vehicle for Mrs. Harrison to bring other New York institutions to life. First, the author remembers the Horn & Hardart machine on West 57th Street, where Ellen works as a “nickel thrower” and where students and league professors enjoy the 50-cent hot dishes made from macaroni, cheese, and baked beans.
Beyond the vending machine, Ms. Harrison expands her observation skills to New York’s music and art scenes. To do this, she uses Ellen’s roommate as a waitress at Bitter End, where the two sometimes perform. Ms. Harrison recounts a legendary night at the club where Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Mary Travers, Pete Seeger and other great musicians gathered on stage to pay tribute to Woody Guthrie, who had died that afternoon.
The fictional characters also meet some of the glitterati in the art world, including Andy Warhol and his entourage. Ms. Harrison designs a young NYPD detective, Angelo Valentino, nicknamed Sheik, to visit Warhol’s workshop, The Factory, to investigate an encounter between the murder victim and the group at the Whitney Museum. For the occasion, Sheik dresses in black Levi’s, harness boots, turtleneck sweaters and black leather motorcycle jacket.
The author recreates the open-air atmosphere in the attic, which is covered with some rickety wooden chairs, a large red sofa, a table with a Bell & Howell film projector, and a payphone. Sheik meets and supports Warhol with a screen print and jokes with a kimono-clad Candy Darling while she is being groomed by Billy Name. While in the attic, Sheik learns that Valerie Solanas, “the founder and sole member of the Society for Cutting Up Men, acronym SCUM,” has spoken to Benton. Sheik then visits the Chelsea Hotel where Solanas lives, which gives the author another opportunity to share the city’s unique history.
Mrs. Harrison tells of Max ‘Kansas City, where Warhol claimed a large table in the back room as his own. Ellen and TJ arrange a table nearby in hopes of learning more information about Solanas, who has become a suspect. Since the two are criticized as “a little square”, Ellen’s roommate helps them to put on “hip clothes” for their outing – a black lace mini dress by Fred Leighton on Macdougal Street for Ellen and a brightly colored blouse made of plastic beads for TJ .
Ms. Harrison contains several memorable twists, including a New York coroner known as “Sherlock Holmes with a microscope” and a man who drinks and “bends his elbow” at a bar. She also shares the details of a forensic analysis course at John Jay College, e.g. B. How to identify a murderer among a group of suspects: Motive, Means, and Opportunity.
As usual, this reader neglected to solve the Whodunnit and instead enjoyed TJ and Ellen’s easy subway rides along the Seventh Avenue Line, walks near Union Square, and trips to the city’s famous Village music clubs, who seem far more accessible in Ms. Harrison’s story than that terrified Midwestern transplant imagined at the age of 20. In the end (without spoilers) the killer emerges as one of many with a motive because, as Ms. Harrison notes of the victim Benton, “his talent for making enemies” was legendary, even more recognized than his artistic prowess. ”
Lisa Kombrink has attended the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop and others through Canio’s books. She lives in Southampton Village and manages the Southampton Town Community Conservation Fund.
Helen A. Harrison is the director of the Pollock Krasner House and Study Center in Springs. She lives in Sag Harbor.