And now we come to Lucy Ripken’s last New York story, SEX AND DEATH: THE MOVIE. There will be other Lucy Ripken stories to follow, but this is the final one Lucy will experience while living in the SoHo loft that has been her home base since the first book.
By the way, I did want to mention—in case you hadn’t noticed–that unlike most mystery books series featuring one character going through many adventures, Lucy Ripken is aging throughout the course of these stories. I’m not keeping a strict watch on this element of the story, but Lucy is a 30something single woman in the city, in and out of love, in that zone where having children is still an option but less so every year. She is aware of the ticking bio-clocks and the friends with kids and all the other things that remind her that her life is not your normal one. She is beginning to think maybe she wants something more normal. And so this last blast of mad New York energy—the Sex and Death scenario–reminds her of that in its perverse ways. Reminds her that chasing these stories down will at some point not be enough to keep her motivated and/or happy. I don’t like to dwell on these things, because they can become a distraction from the story, but I have mentioned them enough to remind readers that these ongoing worries are part of her life.
And so there are reasons for Lucy’s departure, some personal, some not so personal. On the personal level, there is of course the loss of her father and the murder of her friend: these two events that took place in the last book have undermined Lucy’s already wavering desire to live in New York. But above and beyond all that, there is New York itself, undergoing changes in its usual relentless and unforgiving manner. The city is becoming less Bohemian, less artistic, less “free” in every sense of the word. New York has always been a money town but it has become more so with every passing year, and as this happens, it naturally affects people like Lucy in profound ways.
The kind of life she has lived in Manhattan is increasingly unattainable without more money than she has ever been able to make.
The economic and cultural changes brought on by the money surge are reflected in the movie Lucy is asked to work on. The movie, unofficially called A Movie About Sex and Death, is, yes, about that—about old men with younger women, about dark, destructive family conflicts re-emerging—but it is also about how New York, more particularly Manhattan, is changing, from the 19th and 20th century immigrant metropolis that had room for people from all over the world and every economic class, into a place where rich people come to park their money in real estate and play the stock market, the money market, all the markets that make money not by making things but by making deals. Don’t get me wrong, immigrants from all over still flood into New York, but mostly into the outer boroughs now. Nobody moves into Manhattan without a driving desire to “make it” on some public stage or other, or to make a lot of money, or to attain fame, fortune or notoriety. Few people come to Manhattan to simply get a job and make a life.
In real life, a good friend of ours was shooting a low budget movie on the Lower East Side a few years ago. We spent a day with him, or half a day, and as I watched the movie get made, or at least this little piece of it, this new Lucy Ripken tale offered itself up to me.
In this fictive version of the film-making story, Lucy gets a call from an old friend, Paul Wittgenstein, a photographer who is in the middle of directing his first film, a low budget feature set in the East Village and the Lower East Side, long known as outposts of immigrant Jewish culture, layered with Puerto Rican and Chinese and other cultures, other peoples that wandered in, and further layered with the hipster/bohemian underworld that thrived in downtown Manhattan from the 1940s until, well, the 21st century, when the money took over. Manhattan, especially downtown, has always been a mishmash of a place, where anything could happen and everything often did.
This character Paul W is based on this friend of ours who is a photographer and now a film maker, like the character, but without the compromised morality that casts a shadow over Paul. In “real” life our friend has been married twice but remains happily married to his second wife. His first wife did play a role on a fairly well-known and highly regarded TV show a few years back. As far as I know Paul has never visited any sex clubs in New York City, although I know such clubs exist because I have stumbled on them once or twice, and in the old days of free love and sex, such places, or more innocent versions of them, were well-known: Plato’s Retreat was probably the most famous, but there were other, more intense places that offered…well, more challenging sorts of sexual game-playing. In New York City, if you have the money, the time, and the desire, you can fulfill just about any conceivable sexual fantasy.
Don’t get me wrong, New York is still loaded with cool people and artistic energy, but more people than ever before spend way too much of their time making money to find the time to make art or political noise. The heart of New York has moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn; but in this story, Lucy’s trips to Brooklyn are like visits to another country. She doesn’t know a thing about the place. In the years since I wrote this book, Brooklyn has become the most desirable place to live in New York. So much so that Brooklyn, too, like Manhattan before it, is getting too rich for the working class and the artistic class to live there. So it goes.
A Movie About Sex and Death is Lucy’s first attempt at real screenwriting (as opposed to the “reality” TV writing she did in X Dames) and she rises to the challenge with her usual skill. The movie within the book works as a kind of counterpoint to the book itself, both book and movie mirroring and commenting, one on the other, until in the ultimate inside-out twist to this interplay, the line between them is tragically erased. Yet this story is also about corruption of all kinds: sexual, financial, creative, emotional. There are a lot of dark secrets unraveled in the course of this narrative, and in unraveling them Lucy finds herself visiting some seriously skanky underworld scenes: sex clubs, particularly of the S&M variety, are part of the story here. As is an underground poker game. As is the suggestion of incest. As is a guy who is deeply into autoerotic games. He pays a price, and therein the mystery takes off. In the end everything shakes out as it always does with Lucy. The murder is more or less figured out, Lucy saves the script, Paul gets his movie made, and everybody lives (un)happily ever after. The end is not entirely without its sense of unfinished business, of things not quite being resolved, but that’s life.
The story weaves “reality” and the movie into a hopefully seamless web, or a hopelessly tangled plot, depending, I supposed, on how carefully you read it. But I wrote it carefully and I believe it all adds up and makes sense, although there are moments when it is hard to remember if you are in the book or in the movie, or both at once. Feel free to let me know if you find any holes in the web I’ve woven.