Monday, July 30, 2007

We've all been things we aren't anymore

A little more than a year ago, I wrote the following about Richard Aleas's first novel, Little Girl Lost (2004):
The novel ends with the protagonist—who in himself is the best part of the book to that point, a young detective whose inexperience leads him to make dangerous mistakes—making a morally unacceptable choice. He knows he's done wrong, but even so, neither he nor the novel seem to fully admit how wrong his decision is. It made me pull all the way back to questioning the author's ethics, and that's not where you want to leave a reader at the end of a mystery novel.

With his second novel Aleas lays those questions to rest. Songs of Innocence (2007) brings back Aleas's detective John Blake to reveal that not only does Aleas know how bad Blake's decision--to hand a murderer over to mobsters, who will brutally kill her--was, but that Blake knows as well, and that the knowledge has been preying on him for two years.

At the time of Little Girl Lost Blake was a English lit graduate school dropout who'd stumbled into a job as a private detective; his inexperience--which showed in rookie mistakes like his getting clobbered while distracted by his cell phone--put him somewhere between a real gumshoe and one of those ordinary saps so common to noir, the sort of guy who sees his first pistol when the femme fatal hands it to him and tells him who need shooting.

In Songs of Innocence, Aleas is more interested in what the title implies, the essential innocence that John Blake's namesake posited centuries ago as the opposite of experience. For despite the guilt that torments Blake, he remains an innocent, perpetually surprised by the darkness and depths of human life. It's not that he's always thinking the best of people--he has, after all, worked as a private detective--but that when he thinks the worst, it's almost never bad enough. Combined with his inexperience, that innocence is a volatile mix. He's innocent enough to believe that actions taken in good faith will have good outcomes, and he trusts his instincts too much, jumping to unsupported conclusions. In a violent world, those conclusions all too often lead to violence, the consequences of which are unpredictable, dangerous, and, like the consequences of Blake's long-ago bad decision from the first novel, irrevocable.

Songs of Innocence sets the stage with a magnificent opening line:
I was a private detective once. But then we've all been things we aren't anymore.
In large part because of his guilt over his role in the murderer's death in Little Girl Lost, Blake has left the agency he worked for in favor of a job as an administrative assistant for Columbia's writing program, a job that allows him to take writing classes on the side. His girlfriend, Dorrie, a fellow writing student and part-time escort, is dead, an apparent suicide--but Blake isn't convinced. He has been fighting suicidal depression himself, and they had a last-chance phone call pact; he can't believe she would have killed herself without at least telling him first.

So Blake begins doing what any bereaved lover with detective skills would do: he starts digging. He meets Dorrie's employers and customers, and soon he's diving deep into the world of New York prostitution, with all the gangsters and violence that come with it. He quickly becomes unhealthily obsessed, as if solving Dorrie's murder could still save her, and maybe even clear the stain of his earlier mistake as well; his intentions are noble, but he refuses to acknowledge that sometimes even the most dedicated knight can do nothing to right the wrongness of the world.

To make it worse, there are real questions surrounding Dorrie's death, and the more Blake investigates, the more he is trapped in them, with nothing to do but keep struggling. In scenes reminiscent of the fever dreams of Mark Smith's The Death of the Detective, he sinks lower and lower until he becomes a fugitive himself, huddled all day on a Central Park boulder, waiting for the welcoming anonymity of night so that he can recommence his investigation.

As Blake's mistakes--all committed in good faith, and several with horrible, jaw-dropping outcomes--pile up, it's hard to imagine how Aleas is going to extricate him. The consequences he's facing are too severe to be neatly escaped. That Aleas succeeds in bringing the novel to a satisfying close without denying either his characters or the reality they live in is impressive, and it sets Songs of Innocence well above the usual run of crime novels. I think it's the best book Hard Case Crime has published, and it has me really looking forward to Aleas's next book.

No comments:

Post a Comment