The Hard Case Crime imprint is known for featuring novels by new or emerging crime authors, as is especially unusual in that it has printed the debut novel by its own co-founder, Charles Ardai. Ardai adopted the pseudonym Richard Aleas for this title and its sequel, which feature the small-time private sleuth John Blake. The false name is a thin disguised anagram for Ardai, probably made is tribute to those writers who adopted pen names for commercial or artistic reasons.
Little Girl Lost (2004) is a contemporary private eye novel, borrowing several tropes of the genre but also adapting them to mark the passage of time. Its publication date puts it in the brief time in our history where most working people had cell phones but still relied on voice mail and email to communicate. The founder of Juno, a successful early internet company, Ardai captures the increasingly quaint era of having an online existence prior to the age of video streaming, text messaging and social media.
The protagonist, a young but competent private eye named John Blake, has learned of the death of his girlfriend from ten years ago. Uninspired by his college experience, Blake took a job assisting an older private investigator named Leo, a retired police detective who became his mentor and true educator.
LGL takes its title from William Blake’s 1794 poem “Little Girl Lost,” part of the famous collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Throughout its publication history, “Little Girl Lost” has been moved between the first half (Songs of Innocence) and the second half (Songs of Experience), reflecting the ambiguous nature of its abstract message.
The deceased Miranda Sugerman, the focus of John Blake’s obsession, is likewise distinguished by her ambiguity. Ever since her body is discovered on the roof of the Manhattan strip club where she worked, Blake is convinced that she was the victim of a criminal plot beyond her understanding. This is because Miranda, a pre-med student who dropped out to move into the city, is still the girlfriend he never managed to replace. In order to find her killer, he must uncover the unpleasant truth about the life she led, and resolve what he finds with the memories that fuel his investigation. Ardai does not explicitly state the extent of Blake’s dedication with Miranda — this gets tested throughout the story — but deftly hints at it in the opening chapters:
I had a sudden recollection, as I switched off the machine, of Miranda struggling with the PC in our computer lab — this was before the Internet, but our school had a computer elective and in our junior year we’d both taken it. I remembered sitting with her at the monitor, Miranda desperately trying to finish an assignment, me fighting with the printer when it refused to print. I finally got the thing working in time for us to be only five minutes late to class.
We wouldn’t even have been five minutes late if she hadn’t pushed me up against the lockers in hallway, looked left and right to make sure we were alone, and pressed her lips to mine. “My hero,” she’d said, smoothing back my hair. “Will you always be there to fix my printer for me?”
He certainly tries to be, ten years after they separated. His will may approach that of other fictional private eyes, but his way is quite different. Blake is not the two-fisted hero like Spillane’s Mike Hammer or the two-fisted semi-hero like Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder; he is tall and skinny, and physical confrontations will not get him anywhere. He also does not have the inherent advantage of looking like police, and leans on his mentoring to make up the difference. Here, he interacts with the sleazy Lenz, Miranda’s last boss in the striptease industry:
“Jasmine said you were looking for me. I don’t think we’ve met. Do we have business together?”
“We might,” I said. “I was Miranda Sugerman’s boyfriend.”
He stiffened visibly. After all he’d had to deal with, that had to be low on the list of things he wanted to hear. Still, Leo’d taught me to try the direct approach first.
“This was a long time ago, in high school,” I said. “I read in the paper about what happened, and I figured maybe I could come here, talk to someone who’d known her more recently.” He was doing a slow burn, which told me my chances weren’t good. “I’d like to talk to you about her. Do you have a minute?”
This approach gets him nowhere at first, but he follows the dancers to a nearby bar where they gather after their shift. He’s not exactly welcome there either, but his straightforward, and seemingly naÏve, manner impresses one woman enough to confide her fears to him. This dancer, named Susan, tells him that Miranda expressed fear of the club’s owners – a father-son pair of gangsters – the night of her death. This sets Blake on the trail of the killers, and also on the path to a relationship with Susan. This of course follows genre convention, but Ardai manages to portray the relationship as something that follows from Blake being the only genuine figure in Susan’s horribly corrupt environment.
Ardai has more in store for us, however. Blake may be determined and well-intentioned, but his irrational picture of Miranda leads him to make some costly mistakes. He gets beaten up more than once, and the lives of those who share information with him fall under grave threat. He reminds himself of Leo’s warnings, but cannot heed them if it means ending his pursuit of Miranda. Because Ardai invested much of the first half of LGL building them, the fate of many of these characters in Blake’s path matter to us.
The events of a past-paced final half of LGL thin the herd of suspects, and offer us clues, to the point where we could solve the mystery of Miranda Sugerman before Blake does. This is because as he gets closer, the sleuth increasingly becomes taken over by his irrational drive. When he sleeps he dreams of Miranda and her vanished roommate, with whom she toured the country performing a signature striptease act. To continue his quixotic pursuit, he actually agrees to work for the same gangsters that exploited Miranda and Susan (inexplicably, these same gangsters let a disgruntled bouncer beat Blake up just after hiring him).
This leads to a final confrontation between Blake and the killer, and he is finally faced with the truth. The real suspense is what Blake decides to do after finding out what really happened to Miranda, and why it happened – but this moment is compromised by the fact that the killer was right where Blake could find him. Why not disappear into the city, since he knows a private eye and other dangerous individuals are on his tail?
Despite the intermittent logical problems, Ardai does a fine job demonstrating Blake’s strengths and weaknesses as both a moral character and a problem-solver. He does not get drunk to hide his emotional struggles from the reader; he fights through them in plain view, while ginning up the courage to face the next thug on his list. While the circumstances around the violent episodes always fit perfectly, the consequences of these acts receive an unusually sensible amount of attention. On balance, LGL is a highly readable debut novel with a refreshingly modern noir setting and compelling characters. 7/10.