Hard Case Crime 7/07: Songs of Innocence by Richard Aleas (#33)


Three years ago, detective John Blake solved a mystery that changed his life forever–and left a woman he loved dead. Now Blake is back, to investigate the apparent suicide of Dorothy Louise Burke, a beautiful college student with a double life. The secrets Blake uncovers could blow the lid off New York City’s sex trade…if they don’t kill him first.

Richard Aleas’ first novel, LITTLE GIRL LOST, was among the most celebrated crime novels of the year, receiving nominations for both the Edgar Allan Poe Award and the Shamus Award. But nothing in John Blake’s first case could prepare you for the shocking conclusion of his second…

The second John Blake novel (following Little Girl Lost) picks up three years after the first. John Blake has abandoned the field of private investigation, and is working at and attending Columbia University. Just when he thought he was out, he’s pulled back in when he doesn’t believe for a second that his friend and at least sometimes lover Dorrie Burke actually committed suicide.

Little Girl Lost originated in strip clubs; Songs of Innocence covers kissing-cousins massage parlors and “spas,” with Dorrie actually being one of those girls who’s in the skin trade in order to work her way through college.

I’ll use that as a jumping-off point to get my criticisms out of the way. Keep in mind when reading them that I think Songs of Innocence is a really good book. I’ll talk about the good stuff in a bit.

Number one: This “heart of gold” stuff is a problem with Richard Aleas’ work to date. Reading his books, you’d think that if the bar scene and online dating aren’t working out for you, your local titty bar or massage parlor might be an excellent place to seek a mate. The women are good-hearted and beautiful and often highly intelligent. None of them abuse drugs.

Number two: Aleas is an accomplished editor (he’s actually Hard Case Crime’s Charles Ardai), which means he may not have used an outside editor for Songs of Innocence. If he didn’t, he should have. A lot of times, all John Blake needs to do to get people to spill their guts is show up. Just a little more exposition could have made these scenes feel more realistic, and an outside editor may have pointed that out.

I bring these things up not because they fatally wound the novel, because they don’t. If I seem hung up on problems I’d gloss over in a lot of books, it’s because Aleas needs only slight improvement to move from the “very good” category to the “great” category. Which is to say, both Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence are very good books that are bordering on great.

Songs of Innocence moves so quickly that you’ll likely gloss over these problems, especially if you don’t write consumer-oriented capsule reviews for your obscure crime-fiction website. While fully a P.I. novel, Songs of Innocence is paced like a great action movie. It’s also, like Little Girl Lost before it, structured extraordinarily well. I must say, the man knows how to end a book.

He also knows how to bring a character to life. If his strippers and hookers have clichéd hearts, they also have fascinating and engaging personalities. I’d like to spend more time with some of them, and other characters as well; maybe I’ll get a chance in future books.

Both Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence are highly recommended. Note that you’ll want to read Little Girl Lost first–the John Blake mysteries are not as freestanding as, say, the 87th Precinct mysteries.

And before I go, may I add that Glen Orbik‘s cover for Songs of Innocence may be Hard Case Crime’s finest to date? Wow.

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Hard Case Crime 10/04: Little Girl Lost by Richard Aleas (#4)