Songs of Innocence

by Richard Aleas

Published by Hard Case Crime

256 pages, 2007

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Siren Songs

Reviewed by Anthony Rainone

Private investigator John Blake is suffering from an existential breakdown in Songs of Innocence, the second book in the Blake series, by author Richard Aleas. Much of his moral dilemma stems from events he suffered during his debut outing, in the Edgar and Shamus award nominated Little Girl Lost (2004). Blake doesn’t want to be a P.I. anymore (“I was a private investigator once,” he remarks early on. “But then we’ve all been things we aren’t anymore”). Yet, that’s like a Dalmatian dog saying it doesn’t want spots on its fur any longer. Somewhere along the line, his fate has been permanently cast, and Blake can’t stop himself from investigating crimes. Once more, in Songs of Innocence, personal circumstances lure Blake back into the game, and readers can only benefit, because this book provides a terrific and seductive ride.

Where does a New York City P.I. who wants to escape from his detective world go? In this case, Blake heads to the creative writing department at Columbia University’s School of General Studies, where he takes employment as an administrative assistant, and also enrolls in a few writing courses. While there, he meets beautiful student Dorothy “Dorrie” Burke, who has talent and looks (“She was beautiful in a way you’re accustomed to seeing on movie posters, or the pages in a magazine, but not in real life”). Dorrie has a difficult past, which she unburdens onto Blake, who likewise divests himself of some of his own inner torments. He tells Dorrie of the events recounted in Little Girl, during which he searched for an old friend, Miranda Sugarman, with the help of a stripper turned detective, Susan Feuer.

I found myself telling her about Miranda, my girlfriend from high school, and the murder on the roof of the strip club. I told her about Susan and how she’d almost been killed, and I told her how it had ended, with both women’s blood on my hands. I told her more than I’d ever told anyone.

Dorrie and Blake are two of the walking wounded, and they talk about suicide (Blake even loans her a book on how to effectively do it). But they make an effort to slog through their difficult lives, and they promise to call each other when the urge to end it all seems overwhelming (“If one of us ever felt like doing it, seriously felt that way, we’d call the other and talk it out instead”). These are star-crossed friends, however, and when the chips are down, neither is able to provide help for the other.

When Dorrie’s body is found in her bathtub, a “plastic bag ... taped tightly around her neck with gray duct tape,” the police rule the death a suicide. Yet they harbor suspicions about Blake, whose fingerprints are all over the woman’s apartment. At a subsequent memorial event for the dead woman, Dorrie’s mother makes clear that she doesn’t believe her child would take her own life. Blake knows better, so it is more than convincing when he analyzes the supposed suicide scene, and agrees that it’s suspicious. Dorrie’s mother wants to hire Blake to find the killer, but Blake throws her a smokescreen, and refers her instead to Feuer, who is now a P.I. He fully intends to find Dorrie’s killer, but it’s a personal crusade for him, not a monetary one. He investigates the case partly to assuage the guilt he feels for failing his friends, both present and past; but also in part to cleanse the blood (Miranda Sugarman’s) from his hands. It’s a tortuous journey for Blake, because these are demons he will never exorcise.

It’s at this point that Songs delves into the sordid subject matter of the New York City sex trade. To support herself, the beautiful Dorrie worked as a masseuse, providing men with happy endings -- and sometimes much more. Dorrie is like a lot of young, gorgeous women in Gotham: she had grand dreams that didn’t quite pan out. In Dorrie’s case, she had aspired to work in the fashion industry.

No matter how tough they come across, John Blake knows, female sex workers are terribly vulnerable to psychotic patrons. That includes masseuse and massage parlor owner Julie Park, who he meets in these pages. An expert at her job (“I gave a great massage. You’ll have to take my word for that”), Park has recently had her hand broken by Miklos, a henchman for her former boss, Ardo the Hungarian. Park is feisty, sexy and honest about her circumstances (“I’m not ashamed of what I do, John. I won’t say I’m proud of it -- but I’m not ashamed”). When she left Ardo’s employ to open her own “spa,” Park took several of her clients with her, in effect lifting money from Ardo’s pockets. Park hired Dorrie to work in her sex joint and passed along several of her clients to Dorrie as well -- clients who might have been said to “belong” to Ardo. Blake considers the dangerous Hungarian a prime suspect in Dorrie’s murder, the thinking being that he killed her in revenge for Park’s theft of his customers (“It was by no means a sure thing that he’d also ordered Dorrie’s death, but for now that was my best hypothesis”). Together, Ardo and Miklos present Blake with his most formidable adversaries to date.

Much has been written about the validity and relevance of the private eye genre in the 21st century, but Songs of Innocence proves that P.I.s can still function ably in fiction as speakers for the marginalized among us. Working girls like Dorrie Burke don’t get the attention from a busy police detective squad that other, more socially acceptable citizens can expect. Who heeds their call, if not a gumshoe? The police have tunnel vision with Dorrie -- they see her death as suicide, they like it as suicide, so it must be suicide. Sensitivity is John Blake’s strongest trait, but it also makes it harder for him to operate in the dark investigative passages that he must navigate. Sex workers like Dorrie Burke and Julie Park arouse his empathy, and he can barely stand to be with Feuer, who almost died because of his actions. Blake feels too strongly the negative impact he causes others (“No man should lose count of the number of people who have died because of him”).

When it appears that his new book might slide toward an expected dénouement, Aleas (the pseudonym of Hard Case Crime book publisher Charles Ardai) suddenly pulls an ace from his sleeve. This is probably one of the reasons why this Edgar-winning author’s work is so often in the running for such commendations. Dorrie’s life never hits a high mark, save for the compassion and friendship shown her by reluctant sleuth Blake. The circumstances of Dorrie’s life and death are deplorable. There are no happy endings for the denizens of the sex trade in the naked city -- neither for the operators, nor those seeking justice for them. Like Blake. Aleas/Ardai’s protagonist is an interesting character study in contrasts, as he goes from one sex joint to the next. Although he has navigated his way through this sordid trade before, in Little Girl Lost, and he has no problem dispatching tough guys such as Miklos, Blake takes unexpected exception when a woman performs fellatio on a man, when all three of them are occupying a steam room. Describing himself as “vanilla,” John Blake scurries from the ardent pair.

In the end, Blake remains a damaged man who’s capable of breaking your heart. This brilliant P.I. is not able to solve his own lament. Pain never hurt so good. | September 2007

Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine, a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet, and the author of a blog called Anthony Rainone’s Criminal Thoughts.