Richard Aleas is apparently an alias for Charles Ardai, the guy who runs Hard Case Crime, and that makes me incredibly happy, seeing as how Little Girl Lost rocked my socks and I can go all scout’s honor to say that I wasn’t aware of the penname during my read-through.
So any kind of genre book, for me, has to do several things in order to make me grant it the might rating o’ 5. First and foremost is that it needs to be willing to actually be its genre. While you get points for breaking a trend, you can’t just say a book is crime or noir and then break the trend from the start – you have to first show that you know the genre, then you can surprise your reader by breaking free. Second – do something new. Harry Potter is a good example of a book really not doing anything new, and so I can’t remember what I read in that series. It’s absolutely fun to read, and of course there was the “new” concept of bringing a developed fantasy world to a children’s series, but otherwise, you’ve read that story before. Lastly, and ideally, you gotta’ step on my toes a little bit. Make me feel something or think something. Popcorn books are great, but they don’t need to stay on my shelf.
“Little Girl Lost” doesn’t quite go for the gut as much as some noir stalwarts, like Donald Westlake for example, but it fulfills my first two haughty standards with enough spades that the light attempts to connect with the reader were plenty for making the book an excellent read.
PI John Blake wakes up one morning to see the picture of his girlfriend from ten years past as reported murdered. That’d be enough of a shock to most of us, but as she’d left his life for college to become a doctor and showed up again a decade later as a dead stripper – well, that’s curious. And since he’s a PI, let’s look into it.
The beginning of the tale is one of Aleas’ more risky moves – he begins with an almost sappy flashback to our lead’s last experience with the girlfriend, then has Blake jumping right into the investigation… before telling us Blake is a PI. It’s a cute cold opening that extended further wouldn’t work, but it the smart use of dialogue and investigation throughout the story – the thoughts of our lead and the words of others tell us plenty about the story without falling into the habit of over-explaining or ‘revealing’ through awkward conversations. This natural flow then allows you to have a good, solid image of every character. Some books I have trouble remembering who’s who beyond the lead roles because the author just tosses out names. In Aleas’ book I had no troubles.
Your noir comes in the twisting of character expectations, as well as the general seedy New York tone of the book. We’re kept afloat by John Blake’s intelligence and his ‘average guy’ness while swimming with strip club owners and mobsters. Of course the murder happened for a reason, and of course it’s over drugs, or money. Blake pursues how Miranda – his ex – could’ve gotten mixed up in all of this and, again, par for the genre, he gets mixed up as well. The changes that come to his character begin to happen subtly and sensibly. Above it all is Aleas playing with this concept of an ideal. Blake knows Miranda is no longer the girl from ten years ago, but the whole story is his struggling to come to terms with it. There’s a repeated image of a bird in a cage that cleverly woven in – it’s an artsier move than the above mentioned ‘punch in the gut’ method, but has a similar effect of slowing down the reader and getting you to think for a moment.
“Little Girl Lost” might not be the most hard-edged, or the most original, or the most noir of all the HCC books. But it pursues its genre with enough respect to speak to it with a fresh voice, and keeps on the level with the reader for every page of the book – a difficult accomplishment in any genre. HCC head Charles Ardai has chosen a fine book to add to his company’s stable.