John Blake
Created by Richard Aleas (pseud. of Charles Ardai)

Hard Case Crime co-founder and author Charles Ardai deserves to be slapped around at least a bit for using Richard Aleas as a pen name (even if it is a cockeyed anagram of his own name). But we'll cut him a bit of slack since he's offered us up a primo slice of pulp heaven as attonement. Little Girl Lost chucks the easy nostalgic lure of the past, and plunks his story smack dab in the present, although it's no less retro in spirit than his partner-in-crime Max Phillips' Fade to Blonde.

JOHN BLAKE is a young New York City private eye, 10 years out of high school, who's not quite as jaded and world-weary as he thinks he is. In fact, innocence -- and its inevitable demise -- form the backbone of this story. It seems Blake's high-school sweetie, Miranda Sugarman (another great moniker), took a powder a decade or so ago, but has suddenly reappeared in the Big Apple and in John's life. Unfortunately, their reunion isn't a happy one -- Blake learns about her return in a Daily News article, under the headline "Stripper Murdered." Against his older partner's wishes, Blake decides to look into Miranda's death on his own dime, and find out how it all went wrong for his dream girl.

Naturally, reality turns out to be a bitch. Little Girl Lost is classic pulp, with a hearty dash of voyeuristic sleaze tossed into the mix: love-struck lesbians, well-endowed strippers and assorted treacherous -- but friendly -- babes all get their close-ups in these pages. Plus, there's at least one plot device so hoary you can't believe Aleas would dare use it. Yet he does -- to great effect.

But that's part of the charm of these books. In sticking to the tried-and-true, the Hard Case boys may not be breaking much new ground, but in a publishing world where puffy, bloated and padded "character studies" are passed off as high-brow crime "literature," and plodding 400-page mysteries are becoming the norm, it's a pleasant jolt to read something lean and mean that gets in and gets out in 250 pages or less, yet still manages to rock the house. Things happen in these novels, and they happen fast. Phillips and Aleas have put the fun back into crime fiction, not just as publishers but as writers, and from where I sit, that's no crime at all.

NOVELS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Adapted from the January Magazine Rap Sheet review.


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