My recent book selections have been a bit on the heavy side, so I was looking for something lighter, something more along the lines of a guilty pleasure. I went over to Naomi Novik’s website to see if her new book has hit the library yet (it hasn’t), noted that her husband, Charles Ardai, is an award-winning author who writes under the pen name of Richard Aleas. I figured what the hell and tracked down his first novel, Little Girl Lost. It turns out that not only does the guy write novels, he writes pulp novels. He is one of the founders of the Hard Case Crime line of books, which are small paperbacks, throwbacks to the golden age of pulp noir, with luridly painted covers, most of them featuring a beautiful woman holding a gun. The books are well-crafted perennial award-winners, full of tales of betrayed lovers, cheating husbands, crooked cops, steel-eyed molls, and detectives who can’t let that one case go.
The story introduces us to John Stark, a young investigator still learning the ropes but who knows just enough to be dangerous. He reads in the paper that his high-school sweetheart, Miranda, who he thought was in med school, was found murdered on the top of a seedy New York stripclub. Stark tries to track down her murderer, and almost as importantly, discover how she went from the bright and smart girl next door to sensual grifter slumming for cash. It all ends badly, but of course, it has to: it’s the classic tale of someone losing their innocence while discovering how someone else lost theirs. Along with Stark and his journey through the New York underworld, Aleas creates interesting characters like Stark’s boss, Leo, an ex-cop who instinctively knows how the story is going to end, and Susan, a stripper Stark enlists to help him with his quest who turns out to have formidable investigative skills of her own.
“Little Girl Lost” is an excellent noir tale, short enough to devour in a day or two but well-written and packing a surprisingly large emotional punch.