LITTLE GIRL LOST is the debut novel of Richard Aleas, a new voice who already has won well-deserved critical and commercial acclaim for his short fiction. I mention that this is Aleas's "debut" novel simply to save you the trouble of trying to hunt down his previous books, something that you instinctively will be inclined to do after reading this fine, dark, angst-laden tale of love and greed. Make no mistake, however: Aleas, his first time out, demonstrates that he has the chops of a journeyman wordsmith.
The "little girl lost" of the title is Miranda Sugarman, the high school senior class sweetheart of John Blake. Sugarman and Blake parted ways after graduation, each with high hopes that ended in diminished results. Blake, who had planned to go on to college and be one of the world's great thinkers, became a private investigator for a competent but struggling investigation firm. He thought that Sugarman had pursued and caught her dream of medical school and an ophthalmology practice. His presumption is abruptly and irreparably shattered when he opens his newspaper one morning and reads that Sugarman --- working as a stripper at The Sin Factory, a tawdry, second-string New York City club --- has been brutally murdered. Though it has been ten years since he last saw Sugarman, Blake is compelled to investigate the circumstances surrounding her death, not only to bring her killer to justice but also to determine --- if he can --- what diverted her from her plans to practice medicine.
Blake brings a dogged, almost foolish, determination to the task, and soon finds himself forging an unlikely and uneasy alliance with Murco Khachadurian, the owner of The Sin Factory and a second-tier criminal whose penchant for cruelty is legendary. Khachadurian was robbed of over one million dollars by two guys who made the mistake of letting him live. When he caught up with them, Khachadurian got half of his money back, and a name: the hoods, with their last words, gave up Sugarman as the brains behind the caper. The problem is that someone got to Sugarman before Khachadurian did, and Khachadurian is betting that whoever this person was got the rest of his money. He accordingly wants Blake to find the murderer --- and he's not giving him much time to do it.
Aleas keeps a tight grip on his plot at all times. A strong, confident writer, he never loses track of his story while creating sympathy and understanding for Blake, who must rely more on brains than brawn to get through the puzzle surrounding his "little girl lost." Aleas also tosses in a number of welcome genre stereotypes, including a grizzled cop who has seen it all, a stripper with a heart of gold, and at least one very, very bad girl. There also are a couple of surprises lurking. While veteran fans of hard-boiled detective novels will see one of them coming halfway through the book, it's the one that you won't see coming that will really hit you.
LITTLE GIRL LOST is a keeper, and Aleas is a master. I can't wait for more from him.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 31, 2004