Songs of Innocence is published by Hard Case Crime, the imprint founded by Charles Ardai specialising in pulp fiction in the style of the 50s and 60s – the era of the paperback original as delivered by the likes of Gold Medal, Ace, Fawcett, Avon et al. The company has over 70 books in print now, either rescuing and reprinting forgotten examples of the genre or publishing new works cast in that mould. So along with reprints by such well-respected genre authors as Cornell Woolrich, Wade Miller, Brett Halliday, David Dodge, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block and Ed McBain there have also been original works, most prominent of which so far is probably The Colorado Kid by Stephen King. Ardai has undertaken the facsimile approach under the deliberately transparent nom-de-plume ‘Richard Aleas’ (it’s an anagram of his name) for an homage with a surname wittily pointing to its ersatz nature.
“When I shut the laptop, it felt like I was drawing the lid closed on a coffin.”
I love my father but he always cracks the spine of paperbacks while he reads – hardly an unpardonable sin, but it drives me crazy. On the other hand, with this book I was happy to turn over the corners of the pages to keep my place as it just seemed the right thing to do with a small book that so lovingly emulates the golden area of the 25 cent paperback original. These are meant to look worn yet gaudy, the pages well-thumbed but the words never underlined, to be read on the run, the sentences grabbing you even when you could be easily distracted on your commute to work. But this is a contemporary tale that capably channels the hardboiled tradition and translates its tropes for a new century.
First published in 2007, it is a sequel to Ardai’s Shamus and Edgar-nominated Little Girl Lost (2004) and once again features New York private investigator John Blake (named, as the title implies, for the great British poet William Blake), a man who clearly takes things very much to heart. Three years have gone by and Blake, still haunted by the deaths for which he feels responsible from his last reported case, is no longer a detective. Now, apparently burnt out if only 31 years old, instead he makes do working at Columbia University (Ardai’s alma mater incidentally) as an administrator in their English Lit department. Blake is hiding out from the world – but violence and crime come calling when his best friend Dorrie is found dead in her bathtub, an apparent suicide. The book opens with Dorrie’s memorial at the University being disrupted by her angry mother, who insists that her daughter was in fact murdered. In a well-handled flashback we learn that Blake also thinks this is true and has already been investigating her death for days. They had met on the writing course but Dorrie had a double life as a sex worker and had made a pact – if they ever truly felt they couldn’t cope with life, they would ring the other in one last-ditch attempt to change their minds – and she didn’t call. Blake is put on the trail of a vicious Hungarian known as Ardo who owns most of the brothels in New York and has a reputation as being indiscriminately violent.
This is a very compelling book, especially for its portraits of Dorrie and Blake, two damaged people united by a certain sense of hopelessness and morbidity but who had seemingly found a support system in each other. But as Blake talks to some of her ex-colleagues, it becomes clear that Dorrie was afraid of someone and had been planning to flee the city without telling him of her plans. After a tense chase on campus and a frightening encounter with Ardo, Blake returns home to find a dead body in his apartment and the police on their way up the stairs. He goes on the run, acutely aware that his odyssey is unlikely to meet with a happy end.
“I don’t believe you,” she said. “But it’s sweet of you to lie.”
It is easy to play ‘spot the literary progenitor’ with this book, with David Goodis and Woolrich coming across as particularly strong influences, though to its credit the plotting is much more down-to-earth and plausible while the Noir-ish cosmic fatalism associated with such writers is kept to a minimum. James Crumley might perhaps also be tagged as being an influence, especially in its depiction of the seamier side of the streets, but Ardai is not a slavish imitator of past masters and thankfully proves himself to be a highly accomplished writer of more than a mere pastiche, with both his plotting and prose being well above average. There are maybe a few too many red herrings, but this is a surefooted novel that knows exactly where it is going and how best to get there, with a dramatic and highly satisfying conclusion that is not for the feint of heart. To round off the package, the Hard Case books all feature wonderful covers painted in the style of the 50s and 60s paperbacks. Little Girl Lost‘s was by the great Robert McGinnis but for the sequel we have a fine piece by Glen Orbik, whose work you can (and should) check out at his homepage: www.orbikart.com/
The publications of Hard Case Books were suggested to me by my old buddies Jamie and Maja – thanks guys, I will certainly be reading more of them. You can read all about Hard Case Crime at their website: www.hardcasecrime.com