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February 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Pulp Faction
In 1995 Charles Ardai founded a company called Juno with the bold idea of giving away e-mail accounts for free. He took the company public in 1999, rode the Internet bubble until it burst, then merged Juno with another company in 2001 and walked away. Outsiders might well have predicted that his next step would take him farther into the future.
He still keeps an office at the firm where he launched Juno, but the venture he is most passionate about these days is an operation he runs from his apartment: Hard Case Crime, a new line of paperbacks with the look and feel of the original pulps (in some cases, they are the original pulps). Will his latest start-up show him to be ahead of the curve once again-or behind the times?
A native New Yorker who claims, “I have concrete in my blood,” Ardai (pronounced “ARE-dye”) actually discovered the genre while on a family vacation in the Poconos, where musty boxes of magazines rescued him from the boredom of shopping tag sales with his parents. He began collecting Black Mask, Argosy, and Ellery Queen.
“As a little kid I read Sherlock Holmes the way everyone else does, and I loved it,” says Ardai. “But when I hit adolescence, the noir stories really began to resonate. There’s something about the sense of doom and menace and futility, the little guy fighting insurmountable odds and on the run from shadowy figures, that’ll appeal to a 16-year-old kid.”
It didn’t hurt that “you could get into the head of a criminal and really just enjoy the fun of robbing a bank or being a professional killer,” he adds.
But while he loved the good old stuff, he was a kid of his generation: he loved video games, too. He started reviewing computer games when he was a precocious 13, publishing a quarter-million words on the subject over the next 10 years. But when he enrolled in Columbia University, he selected English for a major, naturally, with a specialization in British Romantic poetry. (He says he chose poetry because of a misapprehension that studying 14-line sonnets would be easier than 800-page novels.) Is Ardai a Renaissance man or a sufferer of multiple personality disorder?
To hear him tell it, it’s all of a piece. He finds pulp antecedents even in the capital-L Literature he has studied: “When you look at books by Thomas Hardy or E. M. Forster, a novel like A Passage to India, these are much better written than the pulp novels, but they’re basically noir stories. They’re about people who are trapped in horrible circumstances and fight and fight and don’t manage to get out. The idea that people could turn that into entertainment was very appealing to me. It’s like when Camus was saying that he got his inspiration for The Stranger from James M. Cain. So I went and read James M. Cain and, by god, Cain was good! It’s the best stuff of Camus with the literary pretensions stripped away.
”If you want statements of people confronting the realization of their own mortality, the place of evil in the world, and so forth, Romantic poetry is peerless,“ he continues. ”The Romantic poets were rebelling against an earlier generation of poets who wrote in an elevated and artificial diction that the average person couldn’t read and relate to,“ he continues. ”Wordsworth and Coleridge, when they wrote Lyrical Ballads, said that their purpose was to write in the language of ‘a man speaking to men.’ And the hard-boiled writers, after World War II, really had the same program in mind.“
Their audiences, having seen atom bombs go off, were ready for something a little stiffer than drawing-room mysteries. ”The same movement that produced Hemingway on the literary side produced these slam-bang action writers in the pulps, people like Chandler and Hammett and MacDonald and Cain, who wrote dialogue that sounded like the guy on the street corner instead of sounding like a vicar or a count.“
Pocket Books’ low-cost paperback reprints became popular in the 1930s and ‘40s, according to Ardai, spawning imitators and creating a new market for books among people who didn’t normally read for pleasure. When Gold Medal introduced paperback originals in the 1950s, pulp fiction became a bona fide phenomenon.
But the pulps’ incredible popularity—100,000 was a standard print run during their heyday—also hastened their demise. With a dozen publishers fighting for market share, publishing dozens of books each month, the quality of the writing declined and readers stopped returning. And by the 1960s, says Ardai, the whole hard-boiled genre looked as hip as a flat-top haircut. Beatniks and hippies looked for kicks with their own authors: Salinger, Kerouac, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Kesey, and others. By the mid-1970s, the pulps were toe-tagged and cooling their heels in the morgue.
A month after the Juno merger, Ardai had drinks with his friend, the artist and writer Max Phillips (The Artist’s Wife, 2001). They discussed their shared love of pulps, wishing it wasn’t too late to have pounded the typewriter keys themselves. For fun, Phillips designed a cover for a made-up book called Fade to Blonde. Inspired by his own cover, he outlined the book and told Ardai he’d write it. Ardai said he’d write one, too [see sidebar]. Two years later, they signed a contract with Dorchester to deliver a dozen books, originals and reprints, written by themselves and others.
But are gritty tales of gumshoes relevant today? ”You have to be careful not to be a preservationist,“ acknowledges Ardai. He notes that roughly half of the Hard Case Crime books are brand-new paperback originals, and of those, only one is set in the 1950s. With reprints, Ardai chooses those he feels are most accessible to modern readers, avoiding the casual racism and sexism of the time, dated slang, or books whose biggest appeal is nostalgia. ”It’s not so much that we shy away from nostalgia,“ he says, ”we just don’t want to be restricted by it.“
Certainly, Ardai knows something about mass appeal, given Juno’s target audience of Internet newbies, and despite his somewhat scholarly background, he doesn’t see Hard Case Crime as an ironic pleasure for hipsters. ”When people read these books, they don’t generally say, ‘That was a moving and thoughtful psychological exploration of the human condition.’ They say, ‘Gimme another.’ My partner, Max, once said, ‘We’re the potato chips of literature,’ and there’s some truth to that.“
A pulp sensibility pervades recent pop culture, and a new generation is lapping it up. ”Interestingly, just as today’s 20-year-olds are listening to Tony Bennett and Bobby Darin, they feel no qualms picking up these books and having a blast,“ says Ardai. In Dorchester, they have what Ardai calls ”the heir to the old paperback publishing houses.“ Specializing in mass-market paperbacks, Dorchester also distributes books in drugstores and on military bases—just like the old-timers. And devoted fans can trade a credit-card number for a standing order of each new Hard Case Crime title.
Hard Case Crime recently scored a major coup, with Stephen King volunteering to write a book for the line (The Colorado Kid, coming in October)—an event that will surely broaden their readership even more. But for the moment, it’s just Ardai and Phillips, who both have day jobs. When review copies need mailing, it’s Ardai who stands in line at the post office, hoping to bring back the pulps, winning one reader at a time.
In Drugstore Racks Now
Hard Case Crime novels are easily recognizable by their retro logo and their old-school, punch-in-the-head covers (some covers have been painted by pulp legends like Robert McGinnis). Today there are 10 Hard Case Crime titles in print, a mix of reprints (including classics and rediscoveries) and originals (including debuts and return engagements), but Editor Charles Ardai assures us he has plenty of pulp in the pipeline. Fans of taut, popcorn-tasty storytelling can buy any Hard Case Crime title with confidence, but here are some of the most noteworthy (complete with the classic teasers that appear on the jackets). In addition to the titles below, be sure to check out two new releases, Peter Pavia’s Dutch Uncle and Donald E. Westlake’s 361).
Aleas, Richard. Little Girl Lost. 2004. 224p. Dorchester/Hard Case, paper, $6.99 (0-8439-5351-9).
Miranda Sugarman was going to become a doctor. So how did she end up shot to death on the roof of New York’s seediest strip club?
Aleas sounds like alias-and Richard Aleas is an anagram for Charles Ardai. Nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
Collins, Max Allan. Two for the Money. 2004. 384p. Dorchester/Hard Case, paper, $6.99 (0-8439-5353-5).
After 16 years on the run, will Nolan bury the hatchet with the Mob—or will they bury him first?
Two novels telling one story—and published together for the first time—by the author of Road to Perdition (1998), later a popular movie with Tom Hanks and Paul Newman.
Dodge, David. Plunder of the Sun. May 2005. 224p. Dorchester/Hard Case, paper, $6.99 (0-8439-5358-6).
On the trail of the lost treasure of the Incas-with every fortune hunter in South America closing in!
An Indiana Jones-style adventure first published in 1949 that Ardai believes influenced the creation of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Guthrie, Allan. Kiss Her Goodbye. 2005. 224p. Dorchester/Hard Case, paper, $6.99 (0-8439-5355-1).
When his daughter is found dead, underworld enforcer Joe Hope will stop at nothing to find the person responsible.
An Edinburgh noir by an up-and-coming Scottish writer.
Phillips, Max. Fade to Blonde. 2004. 224p. Dorchester/Hard Case, paper, $6.99 (0-8439-5350-0).
Ray Corson agreed to protect Rebecca from a smut-peddling gangster. He just didn’t count on having to become a gangster himself to do it.
The book that launched an imprint. The author, Hard Case Crime’s art director, was inspired to write the book after he designed the cover.
Stansberry, Domenic. The Confession. 2004. 224p. Dorchester/Hard Case, paper, $6.99 (0-8439-5354-3).
Forensic psychiatrist Jake Danser needs to prove himself innocent of strangling his beautiful young mistress. But how can he, when all the evidence says he did it?
Nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.
To learn more about Hard Case Crime’s books, authors, and artists, visit http://www.hardcasecrime.com.
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