Richard Aleas' second novel, Songs of Innocence, marks the return of John Blake, a bespectacled thirty-something looking to find his way in life -- or at least a solid career he can live with. Is Blake a private eye? Not according to the novel's first lines, I was a private investigator once. But then we've all been things we aren't anymore.
We find Blake working a desk job at Columbia -- in the creative writing department, no less! -- where he's also taking a class or two. Dorrie Burke, a beautiful young classmate and close acquaintance of Blake's has just died, an obvious suicide as far as the police are concerned. But to Blake and to Dorrie's mother, it must be murder.
The only problem with these two teaming up is that by the time Dorrie's mother wants to hire Blake to investigate, he's already started an investigation of his own, an investigation that involves too many sordid details from Dorrie's private life.
Reluctantly, and not always capably, John Blake re-enters the world of the private detective that he left after the events of Little Girl Lost, Aleas' first novel, which left Blake questioning his role in an old love's murder and critically examining his moral decisions. Given the fact that the girl whose murder he's trying to solve in this latest book was a massage parlor worker and internet call girl, it's not long before the black and white grades of morality are far behind him.
Once Blake tracks down Dorrie's co-workers from Sunset Entertainment, he ends up on the trail of a guy with too-long fingers the girls call E.T., a thug who happens to work for "Black Ardo" Fekete, New York City's meanest Hungarian mobster.
The path that Blake follows leaves him battered, shot at, bagged and tortured in a scene reminiscent of Abu Ghirab, and ultimately feeling all too responsible for the bodies that begin to pile up. As he finds one dead end after another, scouring New York's sex trade and becoming a fugitive from the law, Blake gets closer and closer to the one thing he can't bear to find: that Dorrie may have committed suicide after all, for a reason she may have never wanted him to know, and one he may in fact never know.
The closer Blake gets to this realization, though, the more Aleas weaves a tale that his reader can't help but follow, until we, like Blake, fear an empty end. But Aleas is too good a writer to let the novel end on a quiet note. Like some of the best writing in crime fiction or virtually any genre, Aleas spins his tale out of what the reader already knows, facts that stare Blake dead in the face but that are too gruesome to recognize.
Like the best of Flannery O'Connor's short stories, Songs of Innocence catches its reader off guard with a truth that ultimately could not be any other way, the stop-on-a-dime surprise that shows the whole novel in sharp relief, brilliantly illuminated in a moment. The rare accomplishment here is an epiphany for the main character and the reader. By the time it comes, Blake is so much a part of the story, his consciousness so bare and guileless, that his assumption is the reader's, his fears our own. Above all else, Blake is human: fallible, second-guessing, unsure. He weighs his decisions and feels the full weight of the novel's violence. When the truth finally presents itself, his stomach sinks and the reader can't help but follow.
From here, Blake's left with only the concern of how he can pick up the pieces of his life again as he wraps up the case in the only way he knows how. He ultimately finds himself far below New York City, listening to the cries of the city above at night, far from the world of innocence and vanilla where he began. No matter that this innocence had already been tainted with its share of blood, ruthless underworld punishers, sex trade scandal and misery, it's now officially gone too far.
Blake's left to swallow it all, to find a place where it all seems logical and then to file it back into his view of the world. Some things are too dark to put back to right; some songs leave no room left for innocence.