13 October 2007

The Blakes

William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience" forms the thematic motif of Richard Aleas' newest Hard Case Crime novel, Songs of Innocence. Richard Aleas is the anagrammatic pen name (alias, get it?) of Charles Ardai, an accomplished entrepeneur, writer and publisher (Hard Case is his creation). His novel Little Girl Lost (HCC-004) won a Shamus Award in 2005. Songs of Innocence (HCC-033) has the same protagonist, New York City P.I. John Blake, and explores the same netherworld of the sex industry. Novel one was strippers and strip clubs, novel two is hookers and massage parlors. Aleas does a brilliant job of updating the P.I. for the 21st century. Our boy John is a scholarly type, boyish and slight of build. He uses cell phones, e-mail and the Internet. He's no Mike Hammer, but his bull-headedness and moral outrage winds up pitting him against all sorts of hoods, hitmen, gangsters and other tough guys. Little Girl Lost was prologue, and without giving away too much, Songs of Innocence is epilogue. My lovely bride and I like to read books out loud together (the Hard Case books are great for this), and we tackled both of young Mr. Blake's adventures this way. Little Girl Lost was a straightforward missing person/mistaken identity tale. Brisk and suspenseful, we identified with our hero's quest, and forgave him his foibles. "A Little Girl Lost" is actually the title of one of William Blake's "Innocence" poems. Much of the P.I. genre deals with the struggle to maintain hope and integrity (innocence) in a corrupt and tawdry world (experience), and LGL is no exception, as John Blake has to learn hard realities about his youthful dreams. Songs of Innocence is a far darker tale, and is set a few years later, and John Blake is now an ex-P.I., getting out of the business before it destroyed him. Bad things happen, though, and he finds his way back in. Unfortunately his bloody quest for truth and understanding almost bordered on parody. Our hero would stick his head in the guillotine, almost get it chopped off, and then do it again. And again. Everyone told him to look out, the blade would soon fall, but he would push on doggedly. I appreciate a good story of obsession, or even madness (think Jim Thompson), but Songs of Innoncence was almost tiresome. That's unfortunate, because I like Mr. Aleas' writing, and I've blogged quite a bit about my enthusiasm for Hard Case. Suffice to say we had looked forward to spending time with a new and improved John Blake after his fine debut in LGL, and were a bit disappointed by the new version we got in SOI. Funny how the more hard-boiled story was less appealing! Nonetheless, Aleas is a strong writer and I look forward to more from him.

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