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Spotlight on: Songs of Innocence by Richard Aleas

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Songs of Innocence by Richard Aleas Richard Aleas, Songs of Innocence

Three years after private investigator John Blake solved the murder of his one-time ex-girlfriend–turned–stripper, he has retired from the business — it simply took too much out of him. But when his close friend Dorrie Burke is found dead in her bathtub with a copy of Final Exit, and the police automatically rule it a suicide, Blake knows it must be murder. Because they had told each other that, if either felt that low, he or she would call the other and they would work through it together.

But when Dorrie's mother tries to hire him to find her daughter's killer, he refuses because he doesn't do that any more. Well, at least not for pay, as we soon find out when Blake throws himself into the New York underworld with the dedication and dumb courage of a man with nothing left to lose.

Reportedly, it took author Richard Aleas (an anagrammatic pseudonym of recent Edgar Allan Poe Award–winner, Charles Ardai) two months to write the first John Blake mystery, Little Girl Lost, and three years to complete its sequel, Songs of Innocence. (Incidentally, both are named after individual works by the main character's namesake, poet William Blake.)

Aleas's first novel was also one of the first released by then-upstart publisher Hard Case Crime (co-founded by Ardai). It didn't win the awards garnered by some of its fellows (though it was nominated for several), but it has stood the test of time better than most, and is now remembered as one of the best because, in addition to terrifically recapturing the detective novels of the past, it also embraces the present.

And it has something that others were missing — a heart. Despite its flaws, Little Girl Lost was a fantastic read, and its deeply emotional center is what I believe has made it still the favorite of many of the publisher's multitude of dedicated followers. I really enjoyed it, too. It was a solid first novel (with a real grabber of an opening chapter), but it remained very much a debut work, with all the influences and framework still evident. But, even if you thought it was the best book you had ever read (and many did), you would have no basis for thinking that Songs of Innocence would be exponentially better.

But with this book, Aleas has really come into his own. Songs of Innocence has deeper characterizations, a more complex plot, an even more involving storyline, a darker tone, and a much greater feeling of originality, especially in the multi-layered way Aleas sets up the story. Top all this off with a completely unexpected shocker of an ending that will emotionally devastate those readers who allow themselves to get swept up by this wholly remarkable story, and the difference between the two books is huge — it's like comparing the work of a first-year architecture student to that of Frank Lloyd Wright. It's a stunning achievement, and Aleas will be hard pressed to follow it up with an even better work — but I'd love to watch him try.

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