Little Girl Lost, by Charles Ardai (as Richard Aleas)

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.


Robert McGinnis cover for Hard Case Crime.

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.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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8 Responses to Little Girl Lost, by Charles Ardai (as Richard Aleas)

  1. fredfitch says:

    Nobody depends on email anymore?

    Yeah, I suppose that’s true. My friends (many my age and older) are having these involved text discussions. I suck to hell at texting.

    I’ve heard good things about this book, but haven’t read it yet (I will). I’ve gotten many an email from Ardai that assisted me with regards to my own blog. No texts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I still use email, but it has lost its primacy at the workplace. We have software for managing direct messaging and chat-rooms that handles maybe 98 out of every 100 exchanges I have.

      Blake seems to have to learn everything the hard way as a detective, despite his academic creds. I got the feeling that he might never get where needed to be, to eventually take Leo’s place. This article seems relevant:

      I could have made the above point more clear in my article: I described Blake as “young but competent”, but that is the premise that opens LGL. His shortcomings get exposed as the story goes on.


      • fredfitch says:

        Ardai is an avid Westlake reader–Westlake’s reservations about the savvy streetwise super-sleuths of crime fiction were made clear many times in his stories. Hammett made it clear that even seasoned professional investigators screwed up often.

        My workplace mainly still relies on the spoken word, but we use email sometimes. Oh, and we have lots of books. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. fredfitch says:

    You know, I love Robert McGinnis’ cover art, it’s amazing he’s still producing such technically accomplished work in his 90’s, but his obsession with tall skinny girls is getting on my nerves a bit. They just keep getting taller and skinnier, every year. Let your models eat something, Bob!

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      This might be the best McGinnis cover in the HCC series. I think he was probably given pretty much complete discretion as to how to paint Miranda, hence her height and feet. It really recalls the style of the 1960s paperbacks, or at least the ones with the really good cover art.


      • fredfitch says:

        I’m glad anybody’s still doing real cover art. I am bemused, all the same, by how they keep showing women with guns on the cover, when those women don’t usually have guns in the book. This is not at all in the style of the earlier covers they are homaging here. The man has a gun in one hand, and a woman in the other.

        I guess the point is “Without the gun, this image would be chauvinist and sexist. With the gun, it’s feminist and empowering!”



      • fredfitch says:

        Don’t ask me what the naked woman clutching a teddy bear on the cover of the Ardai book you just reviewed is supposed to denote. Is there a gun concealed inside the bear? I guess I better read the book.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Songs of Innocence, by Charles Ardai (as Richard Aleas) | gaping blackbird

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