Saturday, July 12, 2008

Songs of Innocence by Richard Aleas

"Aleas," as many of you might know, is a not-entirely-secret pseudonym for Hard Case Crime's owner/editor/publisher Charles Ardai. (Aleas is not only a homophone for "alias," the full name is also an anagram for "Charles Ardai.") This is his second novel for Hard Case, after Little Girl Lost (which I will now have to track down and read).

Songs is a direct sequel to Little Girl Lost, another mystery centered on John Blake, who was a private detective in Girl but now, three years later, works as an administrative assistant at Columbia. He's an unhappy man, thinking about suicide regularly, and convinced that he's responsible for the deaths of a number of people. (Which, during the events of Girl, he quite likely was.)

In Songs, Blake is investigating the death of his friend Dorothy "Dorrie" Burke, which looks like suicide -- but he's sure that it wasn't. Dorrie was in the writing program at Columbia, the same program Burke works for, and the two of them were close in the way only two damaged people could be.

Dorrie was working as a masseuse -- yes, the kind you're thinking of, the ones that make more money and aren't as respectable -- and Burke believes someone connected to that life killed her and made it look like suicide. So he investigates, in best fictional PI fashion, and pokes his way around the fringes of the sex business and of a Hungarian gang.

It's all fine so far -- Aleas/Ardai is a skillful writer, and updates the hardboiled idiom well to modern Manhattan -- but it's fairly generic and predictable in its broad outlines. But as Songs of Innocence heads towards its ending, it substantially increases the stakes.

There's one twist in the ending which most experienced mystery aficionados will see coming -- maybe Aleas threw that in as a "gimmie." But the final pages are stark and gripping; one of the best and most unexpected endings I've ever read in any novel. Hardboiled novels are supposed to be about the people who really do commit violent crimes and what it does to them; Songs of Innocence delivers and in spades. It ends breathtakingly and perfectly, lifting itt into the pantheon of great crime novels.

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