Neo-Noir That Hits Its Target
Monday, July 16, 2007
SONGS OF INNOCENCE
By Richard Aleas
Hard Case Crime. 256 pp. Paperback, $6.99
Charles Ardai, who writes as Richard Aleas and is not yet 40, fell in love with pulp fiction and noir as a teenager growing up in New York City. He graduated from Columbia University and made a fortune as the CEO of Juno, an Internet service provider, but all along he was writing short stories that were published in crime-fiction magazines. In 2004, Ardai founded Hard Case Crime, which reprints classic crime fiction and publishes new novels as well, issued in low-priced paperback editions with sexy guns-and-girls cover art. One of Hard Case Crime's early offerings was Aleas/Ardai's own first novel, "Little Girl Lost," which was nominated for the Edgar and Shamus awards. Now comes an even better sequel, "Songs of Innocence," that proves he can write noir equal to that of the best of the authors he publishes.
Both novels have the same basic plot. In "Little Girl Lost," we meet John Blake, a private investigator, who seeks the truth about the murder of a stripper who had been his high school sweetheart. In "Songs of Innocence," set three years later, Blake has quit his PI job because of his guilt over horrific events in the earlier novel, and he's working as an administrator of a creative writing program. He's been having an affair with a student named Dorrie, who works in a massage parlor. She's found dead in her apartment, an apparent suicide, but Blake believes the suicide was staged and vows to find her killer. We needn't linger on the plot, except to say that it will teach you more than you ever expected -- or perhaps wanted -- to know about the unlovely nature of the sex-massage business.
"Little Girl Lost" deserved the acclaim it received, but "Songs of Innocence" (the ironic title is borrowed from the poet William Blake, as is the hero's surname) is a huge step forward. Its plot is more focused, its writing more evocative, and its devastating final scenes elevate the novel to an instant classic. The new novel, more than the first one, is pure noir. That is to say it's an exercise in pessimism, in despair, almost in hopelessness. Somewhere the sun is shining, somewhere children shout, but not here. And yet noir always offers a glimmer of hope. Raymond Chandler defined it in his celebrated essay "The Simple Art of Murder" when he wrote that "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." That may be melodramatic, but it's the essence of noir. Bookish John Blake isn't as tough as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, but he's our hero, neither tarnished nor afraid, and he ventures down some of the meanest streets in recent fiction.
As I read, I watched for the hard-boiled touches that mark this novel as noir. Ardai's opening lines set the tone: "I was a private investigator once. But then we've all been things we aren't anymore." An angry woman has "eyes like coals in a snowbank." A writer's "hands trembled, a combination of early-stage Parkinson's and late-stage alcoholism." An ex-con's voice still has "echoes of cell doors clanging shut." In Lower Manhattan "an empty street with shuttered storefronts can be as desolate here as in any Western ghost town," and in the Bronx the subway drops Blake "on a platform marked with smears of grime and decades of accumulated rot." It's a bleak landscape, and near the end, as Blake rides down to the Bowery, he reaches the heart of the matter: "If the ancient Greeks had lived today, I imagined this would have been their Charon, a silent taxi driver ferrying souls along a concrete Styx."
By then, we understand that Ardai's New York is a vision of Hell, a smoldering inferno of victimized women and ruthless men. Blake has been accused of murder, has been badly beaten, is hiding from the police in parks and tunnels, anguished and sleepless, and we begin to realize that our mild-mannered hero has seen too much horror. One of the weaknesses of crime fiction is that no matter how good the writing, we can usually predict the ending: The hero, bloody but unbowed, will triumph over evil. But not always. The painful climax of this novel, as unexpected as it is powerful, will move you in ways that crime fiction rarely can. Noir is not for everyone: not for healthy minds, some might say. But if you admire popular fiction at its darkest, don't miss "Songs of Innocence."