Songs of Innocence, by Charles Ardai (as Richard Aleas)

After his strong debut crime novel Little Girl Lost, Charles Ardai – using his pseudonym Richard Aleas – continues the story of the private investigator John Blake with Songs of Innocence (2007). SoI also continues the usage of a William Blake-inspired title, the death of a sex worker as the initial plot event, and a pre-existing relationship between Blake and the dead sex worker as the hook between character and story. However, this is a book that departs suddenly and dramatically from its shared setup.

SOI_HCC

Glen Orbik cover for Hard Case Crime. hardcasecrime.com

The first half of SoI is a build-up of Blake’s return to his old role — he had quit being a private eye at the end of Little Girl Lost — and the reconstruction of his deceased friend’s life. We know from the beginning that Dorrie Burke, a college student Blake meets at Columbia, was a independent sex worker who sold massages in her apartment, and that she suffered from depression. Dorrie described her profession in a series of deeply personal writing assignments for a class (excerpts from these accomplish a lot of exposition and character development, without repeating the pattern of flashbacks used in the first book), and confided in Blake when entering depressive episodes. When she turns up dead in her bathtub, next to pills and whiskey, and with a plastic bag around her head, Blake refuses to accept that her death is a suicide. She would have called him first, and he would have talked her out of it.

This takes place a full three years after the events of Little Girl Lost, and Blake hasn’t spoken to his old mentor Leo since then. The police are convinced that Dorrie caused her own death; suicides are common in her profession. Her double life had left her without trusted friends (beyond Blake) and she was alienated from her family. Blake thus sets out alone in finding Dorrie’s actual killer, putting himself at risk in the same way that Dorrie did: operating without protection.

There was a time when this would have all bothered me more than it did now — back before my high school girlfriend, who’d been headed for medical school to become an eye doctor, had ended up working as a stripper, and worse. Back before the years I spent, fresh out of NYU, doing legwork for Leo Hauser and getting to see every shitty thing one human being could do to another in the course of a day. Hell, if some men needed to pay to have a woman touch them and some women were willing to take the money, fine. If they both left feeling a little degraded by the experience, well, they didn’t have to repeat it. I’m no crusader. I hadn’t tried to talk Dorrie into quitting the job.

But now I couldn’t help wondering, would it have made a difference if I had? Was it one of her customers who’d done this to her, some crafty sociopath observant enough to spot Final Exit on her shelf and mirtazapine in her medicine cabinet?

Mirtazapine is an antidepressant that lost its patent in the United States in 2004; it would have been cheaper to buy, possibly as a generic, than Prozac or Zoloft. However, mirtazapine is a tricyclic antidepressant and was known to have severe side effects as well as withdrawal symptoms. I don’t recall it being explicitly discussed, but Dorrie was likely not taking the best medication for her condition. Nonetheless, Blake is convinced her death is the work of somebody else, either a client or a former business associate.

His suspicions about the latter possibility are encouraged after he tracks down the last massage parlor (Sunset Entertainment in Little Korea) where Dorrie was an employee. She had left after witnessing a vicious attack on another girl, a British-Korean named Julie, who had her hand smashed into pulp by a gangster nicknamed “E.T.”

Julie actually meets Blake on the Columbia campus, her hand still mostly paralyzed. She is a more scrappy version of the Susan character of the first book (who, incidentally, also has a small role in this one); she broke away from a massage parlor to start her own, but the criminals used to taking their cut from the business found her and sent E.T. to break up the operation. The physical attack was a byproduct of E.T.’s sadistic nature.

Just as Blake learns of E.T., a lieutenant of a feared Hungarian crime boss named Ardo, a man with a gun advances toward them. He takes Julie with him, having her feign (sort of) active resistance as they lead a chase through, and underneath, an old campus building. This scene is a little implausible, but it’s described well and the violence that ends it has a long sequence of consequences. Ardai again shows his strength in exploring the setup and aftermath of violence, rather than dwelling on the act of shooting, stabbing or beating itself.

Blake and Julie escape their attacker but not without injury. She has her hand re-broken and goes into the hospital for another reconstructive surgery. She has already told him too much for her own well-being, but he still has questions:

There was more I wanted to ask her. Like: What’s a Hungarian doing running the best spa in Little Korea? But her eyelids were drooping; the medicine they’d given her after surgery was kicking in.

“One last thing, Julie. Julie?” She forced her eyes open. “If I wanted to find the ads Dorrie ran after she left Sunset — the ones from when she went independent — what name would I search for?”

“The same name,” Julie said. Her voice was muzzy. “Cassandra.”

“I already looked up all the Cassandras on Craigslist,” I said. “They all had phone numbers — none were just email.”

She smiled. “You look under ‘Casual Encounters?'”

“No,” I said. “Why would I? That’s not pros, that’s just ordinary people looking to hook up.”

She closed her eyes again, sank back against the under-stuffed hospital pillow. “You’re so goddamn innocent,” she said.

Among the highlights of this passage is Ardai’s careful explanation of Craigslist and what people used it for in 2007. The Internet’s promise of anonymity was a boon for the sex industry, especially independent operators, but this still was a time when all of the secret information about a person could plausibly be contained within one or two email accounts and the hard drive of a single laptop. There is a fine focus on the state of technology at the time throughout this work and its predecessor. A noir story like this is essentially a story of information and its ownership; Ardai’s vision for the control and exposure of information makes his fiction an essential asset to the Hard Case Crime series and possibly the crime fiction genre in general.*

I enjoyed SoI more than I had expected to, given the familiar presence and the fact that the Blake character ended the first book essentially burned out of the gumshoe life. This is a carefully constructed and surprising story with a very dark resolution. Highly recommended as one of the best of the label. 8/10.

* I’ve read enough HCC books to make the first statement, but enough crime novels to make the second.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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2 Responses to Songs of Innocence, by Charles Ardai (as Richard Aleas)

  1. fredfitch says:

    P.I. stories are challenging. Most of all because P.I’s, in reality, lead very boring lives, mainly making their living by spying on cheating spouses and suchlike. That’s actually one of the most interesting things they do.

    Most challenging of all is to write story after story about the same independent gumshoe. How many times are we supposed to believe somebody with limited resources and no partners can keep getting himself into trouble, keep stumbling onto mysteries that only he can solve? There’s a lot of suspension of disbelief there.

    Hammett wrote a lot about the Continental Op, but the Op isn’t an independent operator–he works for a very large agency with branches in most cities–modeled after the Pinkertons, who Hammett worked for. It’s not at all hard for him to come up with all kinds of things for the Op to do. He doesn’t have to dress it up that much (though of course he focused mainly on the more dangerous glamorous stuff, because pulp magazines).

    Hammett went on to write The Maltese Falcon–the first really successful novel about a private dick (emphasis on the dick part). He wrote a few short stories about Spade, and they mainly just feel like Continental Op rejects. Spade was all used up by the end of that novel. There was nothing more to be done with him. Hammett was also starting to burn out, and his final creation, Nick Charles, is a burned-out investigator running his rich wife’s estate. He just gets pulled into solving a murder. Westlake refitted this idea to write his brilliant Mitch Tobin mysteries, but after only five books written over a few years, he decided there was nothing more to say with Tobin.

    Chandler really started this sub-genre in dead earnest with Philip Marlowe. The most romantic possible iteration of the P.I. as knight errant of noir. Just living this life because he loves it, never making much money, always finding another sexy dame to save. Never actually sleeping with her, which is annoying (I generally find Chandler very annoying, though I admire his style). Spillane fixed that, basically combining Marlowe and Spade with the very first hard-boiled dick, Race Williams, and putting lots and lots of sex into the mix. (I find his style leaves much to be desired, though.)

    You don’t have to take it seriously at all, as Richard Prather proved with the immensely popular Shell Scott novels (that very few people read anymore). Wrote dozens of them, and they are very hard to tell apart.

    The best series P.I. ever was Rockford, who combines the pragmatic with the romantic in about equal measure. This gives the writers on the show much more range of movement. He’s not a saint, and he’s not an asshole. He’s just a regular joe with a sharp mind, a decent left hook, and enough luck and nerve to see him through. He’s a businessman, he’s all about the money, but he likes people, women in particular, and he’ll do the right thing when forced. Usually grumble about it. He doesn’t want to get rich, he just wants to be free, because he found out in prison what it’s like to have no freedom. He never wants to have a boss, ever again. So the job makes sense for him.

    But there have been many many other variations on the basic idea of an investigator working for himself, running across multiple books (or TV scripts). Some of them are very dark and moody, others much more upbeat. The idea has proven very durable, but most of the material appending to it, not so much.

    I’m guessing Ardai didn’t necessarily think he was going to write another book about this guy. Definitely doesn’t seem like he’s going to write dozens of them.

    I definitely will get around to reading them. But I’m back with Mr. Hammett for the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. pete says:

    I haven’t read any Hammett yet, haven’t talked myself into continuing with Allingham’s Campion stories, and I’m only one book into the local library’s Mike Hammer omnibus (I think it’s Spillane’s Hammer who you meant in your chronology above. Race Williams looks like another predecessor) … so maybe I haven’t yet gotten far enough into a “classic” PI series to figure out why they would be harder continue than any other type of series.

    However, Block certainly seemed to be able to keep going with Scudder, and –12 books into it — he has allowed the PI to age with the series (and the author). It does take some amount of suspension of disbelief to accept him getting into these mysteries, as you said, but Block is a very clever writer and takes that task seriously. The character is also faced with the challenge of staying sober, which for a typical alcoholic never ends. Also, I think the dramatic changes in the setting (New York, of course, from the 70s to the 90s) have helped the Scudder books from getting stale.

    Like

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