Friday, May 20, 2011

Fiction: Little Girl Lost

Little Girl Lost
(Richard Aleas, Hard Case Crime, 2004)
New York PI John Blake is shocked to read one morning that Miranda Sugarman, the love of his youth and the babe that took his cherry, was not an eye doctor somewhere in the Midwest as he thought but was instead a newly dead stripper, found with her brains (and face) blown away up on the roof of one of the Big Apple's sleaziest strip joints. Against the advice of Leo, his boss and mentor, Blake begins to look into the murder on his own, and as the bodies begin to pile left and right of him he digs himself ever-deeper into a pit of betrayal, greed and death that will leave him a changed, much-sadder man...
Little Girl Lost is the debut novel of "Richard Aleas" who, under his real name Charles Ardai is no less than the founder of the wonderful Hard Case Crime series to which this novel belongs. Hard Case Crime specializes in paperback editions of good ol' hard-boiled detective fiction, and their love of the Golden and Silver Ages of classic pulp is obvious in the presentation of their books. The books feature fabulously beautiful cover art in the vein of that which once graced the covers of the vintage publications of yesteryear, often produced by the very same artists that did the covers of the pulp and sleaze publications of the past.
The cover of Little Girl Lost, seen here, is by no one less than Robert McGinnis, who is indeed "one of the most famous cover painters in the history of paperback publishing," to use the words of the artist’s bio on the Hard Case Crime website. (For another example of an earlier, vintage cover by McGinnis, take a look at the cover of A Taste for Violence in my March 22nd, 2010, blog entry.) As a result of the great cover art of the Hard Case Crime series, the example shown here being typically fabulous, the books are definite "must-keeps" for anyone whose criteria for collecting paperbacks is the cover art and not content.
In regards to content, the series doesn't do too badly either—even when flawed, as is the case with Little Girl Lost, they are immensely readable.
In an odd way in McGinnis's artwork for the cover reflects the flaws of Little Girl Lost, if in a totally different manner. For the illustration, which is as much of a pleasure to look at as the book is enjoyable to read, McGinnis pulls what we used to call in art school "an Ingres"—but he obviously pulls it on purpose, whereas one is not sure whether Aleas's flaws (which are listed later in this review) are accidental or not.
So, what is "an Ingres"? The term refers to the great French painter Jean Augustus Dominique Ingres, an artist that is a sort of bridge between Neoclassical artists such as Jacques-Louis David and Romantic artists such as Eugène Delacroix. To the average contemporary viewer, when confronted by works of the David and Ingres there is perhaps little apparent differences between the "realism" of the two masters—but there is a huge one. Ingres, unlike David, was very much a tweaker of reality, ready to twist or reform his figures to achieve what he saw as perfection on the canvas. Take a look at the painting directly below, for example, the masterpiece from 1814, La Grande Odalisque. The exotic topic aside, it is indeed true realism, right?
Wrong. Take a look at the length of the extended arm and compare it to the bent arm; look where the breast is located; consider exactly just how long her spine is and the location of where the crack of her butt should be; look at the length of the lower half of the extended leg and compare it to the length of the upper half; follow the line of the bent leg from its knee back to her body and think about where it must connect; look at the size of her head in comparison to the length of her body—the woman is, in every way, distended, tweaked, malformed, unrealistic. And purposely so: Ingres could well have painted her "realistic" had he wanted to, but for him true perfection of the painting was achieved not by one-to-one realism but by tweaking the form to fit the composition, topic, painting as a whole.
And McGinnis's cover for Little Girl Lost does the same thing—just look at all the aspects listed for La Grande Odalisque in the cover art above. His figure is as "deformed" as those of Ingres, and the illustration looks all the better for it.
Richard Aleas, on the other hand, with his thug doorman, beautiful stripper with a heart of gold, ex-cop boss PI with connections, powerful Mafioso thugs, tweaks little from the cannon of hardboiled fiction even as he places them all in a contemporary setting; whether this is due to an intentional and ironic postmodern play upon the standards of the past or simple laziness cannot be discerned from just one book, but were the author not so adroit with language, the cookie-form-cut characters would sink the book.
The novel, which hit the stores in 2004, is nonetheless an admirable debut, and while it is arguable whether it really deserved to be nominated for both an Edgar and Shamus Award, it is unarguably a page-turner, if only because Aleas has a great grasp of verbal flow and grammar and writes in a smooth, comfortable style that is highly readable. But much like how his characters are mostly stereotypes, his plotting less than intricate: the reader easily figures out the twist to come and solves the case half-way through the book, long before the main character, P.I. John Blake. All the more credit to the author's ability with language and writing, then, that the reader still feels the desire to continue reading long past the realization of the obvious twist.
A narratively flawed page turner, Little Girl Lost is a fun read and definitely makes the reader want to come back for more—both to the other books Richard Aleas has since written and the books of the other authors published by Hard Case Crime.

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