This is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime mystery, in order, one every week. You can follow along here.
Little Girl Lost (2004) is by Richard Aleas, the pen name of Hard Case Crime series editor, Charles Ardai. Obviously, there's some potential for disaster here - when the boss picks up a shovel, it takes a brave man to point out that his trenchwork is shoddy.
Fortunately, this is no ordinary boss.
Mr. Aleas/Ardai's short work had already been published in several magazines (and selected for multiple 'Best of...' anthologies, and Little Girl Lost, his debut novel, is a wholly credible addition to the series. Hard Case was not the first to publish Little Girl Lost - it was released earlier in 2004 as a hardcover from the imprint Five Star. The book later went on to be nominated for both the Edgar and Shamus Awards for Best First Novel.
And, you know what? It ain't bad.
John Blake is a New York City private eye with a penchant for ill-considered, self-destructive acts of chivalry. When his high school girlfriend (and first True Love) winds up dead on the roof of a strip club, his angst factor goes nuclear and he drops his (non-existent) workload of (insurance) cases and starts prying into her death. Last John had heard of Miranda Sugarman, she was off to college in the Southwest and on the road to becoming a doctor. What happened?
Blake wants to solve the murder, but, even more critically, he wants to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality. His life, he believes, is a bit of a disaster. He's got no money, no girlfriend and a dead-end job. Miranda is the one that got away - not from him, but from mediocrity. John has always needed to know that she was out there living life to its fullest. Miranda resurfacing as a grimy corpse in one of New York's seediest neighborhoods extinguishes that one tiny point of light in his life. As John grinds away at his investigation, he pictures a thousand scenarios, all with Miranda as the innocent victim (the "little girl lost") of horrible circumstances and sinister conspiracies.
The reality, of course, is far more complex. While John's excellent at dreaming up pedestals for Miranda to stand on, the investigation brings her crashing down to reality. John investigates real-Miranda while still holding a mental picture of dream-Miranda, and it takes a bewildering and increasingly disturbing sequence of events before he can finally reconcile the two.
At the same time, Miranda has another sort of twin or mirror: her college roommate, fellow stripper and possible lover, Jocelyn. No investigation of Miranda can be complete without finding and understanding Jocelyn, and John spends much of his time entangled in the search for this other Miranda parallel.
The fragmented relationships between Miranda and Jocelyn and real-Miranda and dream-Miranda are the crux of Little Girl Lost, and Mr. Aleas juggles the pairings beautifully. The various reveals are all well-paced and, although I'd argue the actual plot twists aren't particularly surprising, it is Blake's emotional journey that makes the book so compelling. This isn't a book about the ah-ha! as much as how the protagonist responds to it.
Mr. Aleas' other strength is in his sense of place. Little Girl Lost is a novel as much about New York City as anything else. Blake has a love-hate relationship with his home. He's known from a young age that he'll never leave, so, in one sense, New York is a trap. But it is certainly a roomy one, filled with millions of people and twice that many secrets. Mr. Aleas demonstrates the sense of scale within the city - how a man can spend his entire life trying to unpick its secrets and still be surprised at what he finds.
My primary quibble with Little Girl Lost is that it is a bit self-consciously part of the genre. A few too many set-pieces appear: the dodgy bar populated entirely by criminals, the stripper with the heart of gold, crime lords fils and and pere, even a murder frame-up or two... Blake's dry witticisms are occasionally forced, especially towards the start of the book. But once Little Girl Lost starts moving and picks up a momentum of its own, the familiar elements are overshadowed by Blake's genuine emotional torment. He's a thoughtful narrator that tries to intellectualise his situation. However, Mr. Aleas prevents him from crossing the line into meta and tenderly reveals Blake's arch philosphising to be a defense mechanism.1
The result is an undeniably impressive debut. Mr. Aleas is obviously familiar with (and perhaps overly loyal to) the nuances of the private eye genre. But he makes the noir tropes feel fresh by having them experienced by a compelling and sensitive protagonist. As mentioned above, even if the reader can anticipate the plot, Blake's unpredictable - and wonderfully genuine - responses keep Little Girl Lost compelling from start to finish. I suspect knowing the ABCs of a genre is nice to have, but not that uncommon. Being able to write great characters? That's what makes a debut stand out.
The cover blurb (from Paramour) compares Aleas to Chandler. I'm leaning more towards George Pelecanos myself, and, as a result, I would highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys the Nick Stefanos series. Blake and Stefanos are protagonists that share unfulfilled personal potential, a strong sense of place, conflicted loyalties and crippling nostalgia - plus they both face vicious moral dilemmas.
Little Girl Lost also features the first Hard Case Crime cover by Robert McGinnis, who is like... words fail me... the Picasso of Pulp? Mr. McGinnis' covers for Dell and Gold Medal are simply some of the most spectacular works of illustration ever created. Non-paperback readers might be more familiar with his work doing film posters for James Bond, Breakfast at Tiffany's and Barbarella. I'm not sure what the background story is, but I believe his Hard Case Crime covers (beginning with Little Girl Lost) were his first for some time... Anyway, the (extremely) long and leggy cover art is wonderfully McGinnis - not his best, but still amazing. As you can see above, it is also a substantial improvement on the hardcover edition.2
1: One comment that I suspect is intentionally meta: "I did remember the day I met Leo, and the day I joined him full-time because it was either that or go to work for an Internet company and I still had some self-respect." (59)
2: Weirdly, this art would've also worked very well with Fade to Blonde...