Hardcase Crime – John Blake’s lost innocence

Once in a while I encounter some Blakeana that floors me. Mike Goode, in an article from 2006 entitled “Blakespotting”, remarked on the frequently bizarre places that Blake occurs, whether Donald Trump’s library or cookery books, and the novels of the poorly aliased Richard Aleas are a mixture of joy and terror. Part of the Hardcase Crime series, Aleas has written two novels featuring the hardboiled P.I. John Blake.

Blake brings with him all the clichés of a Raymond Chandler novel – or rather, all the imitations of Chandler that are the stock and trade of Hardcase books.  There is plenty of sex and violence, but I haven’t worked out yet, beyond the detective’s name and titles of the book, what exactly these have to do with William Blake. Should I decide to indulge in the pleasures of Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence, then I may be enlightened – though I’m not holding my breath just yet.

The first of the two novels, Little Girl Lost, published in 2004, has Blake on the trail of the murderer of Miranda Sugarman, shot to death on the roof of a strip club when she was meant to be working as an eye doctor. The opening paragraphs are, as they say, a doozy:

Visiting a strip club in the middle of the day is like visiting a well-lit haunted house. The magic, such as it is, is gone. At night, the Sin Factory was probably decked out like a casino, with a flashing marquee and a tuxedoed bouncer checking IDs at the door. Maybe even a velvet rope to make the patrons feel special when they were let in. But at three in the afternoon there was no one at the door, the neon was turned off, and even the beat of the music leaking out into the street sounded sluggish and half-hearted.

Under glass in a frame on the door were photos of this week’s featured performers, Mandy Mountains and Rachel Firestone. In her photo, Mandy was cradling breasts some mad doctor had built for her out of equal measures of silicone and cruelty. Rachel’s photo showed a thin brunette straddling a chair backwards, her bare breasts peeking out between the slats. Judging by their shape, hers had gone under the knife as well, but next to Mandy’s, Rachel’s breasts looked almost modest. Either to keep the cops from complaining or to keep passers-by from getting too much of the show for free, management had stuck tiny silver stars over each woman’s nipples. Along the top of the frame, a printed card announced the dates on which each woman would be appearing. Rachel had more than a week left, but tonight was Mandy’s last night.

In the sequel, Songs of Innocence (2007), Blake is investigating a suicide in New York of Dorothy Louise Burke, an investigation that threatens to blow open the sex trade in New York.

Blake (William, rather than John) is not exactly a new fixture in genre crime writing – indeed, Michael Dibdin’s 1995 novel Dark Spectre has achieved a degree of respect among a few Blake critics, handling as it does some of his literary ideas with considerable aplomb and also dealing with the kind of casual misogyny that appears to exist in Aleas’s novels with much more intelligence. (I say appears because I must be honest and reveal that I’ve only read the sample chapters available from the Hardcase web site.)

While, from the little I’ve seen, Aleas doesn’t exactly give “Chandler a run for his money” as Paramour magazine claims, Kevin Burton Smith’s description of the novel as “classic pulp” is a fair one. Perhaps Quentin Tarantino should convert it into a script and mix it up with some good one liners from The Book of Thel

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