Little Girl Lost: If William Blake Wrote Pulp Fiction

HCLGLHard Case Crime is a publishing company founded in 2004 by Charles Ardai, and I am a big fan of what they are doing as a publishing company.  Just as Jack White has tried to restore and bring back to life works of music which may otherwise be forgotten through his record label Third Man Records, Charles Adrai has tried to bring back literary works from the pulp-era, specifically detective fiction.  The company has reprinted a number of classic novels, such as Wade Miller’s Branded Woman and Brett Halliday’s Murder Is My Business, but Hard Case Crime also publishes new works of detective fiction written in the spirit of the pulp-era detective novels, and published in the same manner.  Little Girl Lost is one such book, written by ‘Richard Aleas’ (a pen name/anagram for publisher Charles Ardai).  The work is entertaining, but it somehow misses the mark and fails to capture the spirit of the classic pulp-era detective novels.

 

Queenpin is another recent piece of crime fiction on in the spirit of pulp-era works with some great feminist undertones.

Queenpin is another recent piece of crime fiction on in the spirit of pulp-era works with some great feminist undertones.

One of the ways through which the publisher tries to recreate the aura of the pulp-era novels is through the paratext.  The most notable aspect of this is the illustrative cover.  The pulp-era novels relied on the ‘sex sells’ mentality and often featured lustily illustrated women, sometime scantily clad, and sometimes not clad at all.  The cover of Little Girl Lost tries in vain to recreate this kind of cover.  Artist Robert McGinnis painted the cover, and if one was to secure an illustrative artist (and I stress the word ‘artist’ over the word ‘illustrator’), there are likely none living who would be better equipped for the job than McGinnis.  The art work is great, but there seems to be something aloof about it that makes it obvious that the work is an imitation of the genre (despite the fact that McGinnis himself actually painted such works for novels since the 40’s).  Perhaps it has something to do with the method through which the image is transferred, or something to do with the way that it is printed, or perhaps it is the lettering, which seems to be a tame font.  Novels from the pulp-era often used bold fonts, or fonts that seemed more sensational.  There is also praise for the work on the cover, which few pulp-era novels would put on the cover of the novel.

 

Another example of the overtly sexual illustrative covers from Hard Case Crime.

Another example of the overtly sexual illustrative covers from Hard Case Crime.

The paratext aside, the writing itself seems to be an imitation of genre and doesn’t quite work for several reason, most notably its protagonists overt failings as a detective.  At the onset of the novel, the protagonist, John Blake, is trying to uncover the narrative behind the murder of Miranda Sugarman, the girl to whom he lost his virginity to ten years prior.  Like any good detective novel should do, Little Girl Lost offers clues to the reader along the way that they might solve the crime along with the detective.  The problem is, that the crime is too easily solved.  There is the introduction of a ‘twin’ or look-a-like early in the novel, and several details that have only one, very clear conclusion, and it is one which the reader can see telegraphed from as early as the third or fourth chapter.  Instead of trying to stay one step ahead of the detective, the readers finds themselves waiting for the detective to catch up with them.  The ending, by the time it comes, is long overdue, and the fact that Aleas/Ardai ties it up by allowing one victim to survive and alluding to a new career/happy ending cheapens the dark implications of the closing scenes.  Coupled with this, the narrative if filled with a lot of repetition.  Every time somebody new is introduce, Blake goes through the motions of filling them in, often filling the reader in twice each time.  Going over mundane plot points serves to slows down the pace of the novel and gives the reader the impression that Aleas/Ardai was trying to reach a certain page count rather than add to the story.

 

The artists Had Case Crime hires to do their illustrative covers maintain the spirit of pulp-era novels.

The artists Had Case Crime hires to do their illustrative covers maintain the spirit of pulp-era novels.

Aside from the narrative flaws, there are also some issues with the presentations of women.  For the most part, Aleas/Ardai avoids the trappings of pulp-era novels that overtly sexualize women, despite the fact that the novel does center on exotic dancers.  My biggest issue is with the title: Little Girl Lost.  The title character, Miranda Sugarman, is never a ‘little girl’ in the narrative.  To refer to her as such is to diminish her autonomy.  The word ‘girl’ in place of ‘woman’ could be ignored since the two phrases are interchangeable colloquially, but by adding ‘little’ before ‘girl’, Aleas/Ardai makes it clear that it is a reference to a child or childlike person.  This phrasing comes across as patriarchal condensation, but Aleas/Ardai argues that it was a reference to William Blake‘s title of the same name (reinforced by the fact that John Blake shares a surname with the poet).  Though several of the male characters are brought up in situations that are far less nurturing than Miranda’s, none of their criminal or morally questionable behaviour is excused due to the fact that it seemed predestined due to the unhealthy/unnurturing environment their youths.  For the female characters, however, it seems that situational influences are an excuse their questionable behaviour.  In one passage Aleas/Ardai says it must have been “the years spent going from one strip club to the next” that “brought out the worst in” the novel’s murderess, excusing her behaviour, at least in part.  In the same passage, Blake refers to one of the women as a “calculating, soulless bitch” (157).  This was a frustrating passage because up until this point Blake seems devoid of any misogynistic undertones.  This employment of the word ‘bitch’ seems out of character and weighs down too heavily on the passage.  Though not overt, and certainly not as sexist as many works from the pulp-era, Little Girl Lost does have a couple of scenes that seem to harken back to a patriarchal bias.

 

charlesardai

 

HC1The novels is redeemed to a small degree in the closing passages as Aleas/Ardai seems to suggest an existentialist reading, as opposed to the deterministic one suggested in the passage where Blake rationalizes female criminality by attributing such behaviour with environmental influences.  The closing passage—SPOILER ALERT!!!!!—has Miranda, who it turns out was not the victim but the murderer (as you would likely figure out by page 30), appear in Blake’s dream: both of them returned to their youths.  Blake informs Miranda about what lies ahead and she asks the dreaming Blake why they had “to end up” tragically.  Blake responds: “We don’t have to… But we will.”  This suggests that there is autonomy in this narrative and that each person has choices.  The end is not predetermined, not one that ‘had’ to happen, but one that is chosen.  This is reinforced by the fact that Blake decides to change career paths at the end of the novel because he is not fulfilled by his life as a private investigator.  His mother notes that there are external influences tying him to his career as a private investigator: both his age and his loyalty to his employer who is too old to train a replacement.  Blake, though, refuses to allow either of these to tie him down to a career he doesn’t find personally fulfilling, thereby acknowledging his own free will and making this an existentialist journey.

 

hchihmThe novel is an entertaining read for the most part, even if the detective of the novel seems to fall behind the evidence.  Aleas/Ardai does have some interesting moral dilemmas aside from the existentialist question hooked on at the end of the novel.  SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!  Blake is complicit in the torture and death of Miranda by the end of the work when he thought the torture and death would be that of another person.  Though he does not commit these acts himself, he does turn Miranda over to the person who he knows will do this.  Does this make him implicit in the crime?  This also calls into question how, when and if one should mete out torture and capital punishment.  One might be inclined to call for such cruel and unusual punishment when a loved one is a victim, but what of instances where a loved one is a perpetrator?  The work though doesn’t introduce these questions until the final scenes, which makes them seem more as though they were tagged on at the end, and not that they were meant to frame the work.  Aleas/Ardai also makes poor use of intertextual references.  A number of posters and prints are referenced in the work, among them a Reservoir Dogs poster, and prints from Patrick Nagel and Leroy Neiman.  None of them, however, offer any sort of insight into the narrative at hand and seem awkward juxtapositions at best.  The fact that the reveal is telegraphed so early in the novel also makes the read a little labourious as well and reminded me of watching the film Fracture, whose ‘twist’ was easily identified early in the film but took the police and prosecution almost the entirety of the film to solve.  As far as detective fiction goes, Little Girl Lost  was good enough to get nominated for the Edgar and Shamus Award, but I’m not sure I would suggest that Aleas/Ardai “gives [Raymond] Chandler a run for his money” as the cover of the novel suggests.

 

If you enjoyed this post feel free to check out my reviews of other Hard Case Crime publications, Branded Woman, and Murder Is My Business, as well as reviews of pulp-era detective fiction such as  You Can’t Stop Me, The Name Is Jordan, Stamped For Murder, Pardon My Body and a host of novels by Carter Brown.  For updates and new posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.

 

 

Works Cited:

 

Aleas, Richard.  Little Girl Lost.  New York.  Hard Case Crime. 2004.  Print.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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