Entrepreneur and author Charles Ardai has created a tiny time machine, and he’s selling it himself. “It’s a doorway into old New York that you can buy for $7.99,” Ardai says. He’s referring to his new novel, Fifty-to-One, a screwball-noir set 50 years in the past, in the sooty postwar city of boxing broads, mobsters moored at sea, and graveyard horse races—published by Ardai’s own paperback house, Hard Case Crime.
Five years ago, Ardai and writer Max Phillips founded Hard Case Crime in the long-shot effort to revive pulp fiction of the fifties. Phillips exited early, but Ardai persevered, printing lost classics by the likes of Lawrence Block and the (now much-missed) Donald E. Westlake, plus new titles by Domenic Stansberry, the team of Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, even noir neophyte Stephen King. Subscription sales have kept Ardai in the black, and Fifty-to-One, the landmark 50th book from Hard Case Crime, is a reward for loyal readers. In spinning his vintage yarn—a dame in distress must claw her way through the city’s underbelly to beat the mob—the ever-assiduous Ardai takes great pains to weave in the mythos of golden-age detective fiction.
CELEBRATING 50 YEARS OF HARD CASE CRIME, trumpets the book’s back cover. This audacious claim, for a publisher founded in 2004, has real merit. In winking homage, each chapter of Fifty-to-One is named for a Hard Case Crime title, some of which are 50-year-old reprints, and as a bonus for “those late to the party,” Ardai says, a color gallery of every Hard Case cover is included (click to view a slideshow). Ardai has a knack for evoking lost eras in tidy packages; this is, perhaps, a carryover from his day job rebranding stores for buyout firm D.E. Shaw. “I bring back old things,” he says. His publishing stock-in-trade are bold covers with killer lines: “She was born bad,” for instance, or “Killing is a young man’s game.” Storied giants of pulp art, like Robert McGinnis, stepped off museum walls as a favor to Ardai to give the books their bad-beauty face; younger talents, like Glen Orbik, carry on the lurid tradition.
Fifty-to-One reaches for more than a lost look. The heroine, Trixie Heverstadt, is a decidedly non-stock femme fatale. This tiny Midwesterner of considerable steel is, Ardai says, loosely inspired by Queens-based noir novelist Megan Abbott, admired as “the dark angel of the Zeitgeist,” says Irish author Bruen, for her ferocious fiction. Arriving in the city to find her wayward sister, Trixie survives on pluck and good legs, trading in the Dorothy Parker–esque wit that Ardai ascribes to Abbott.
Things get meta after Trixie meets Charley Borden, the crooked publisher of—can you guess it?—Hard Case Crime books. He pushes the demure dynamo to write a sensational “true-crime novel,” which turns out to be all too true. That’s when the pinwheels start to spin: The mob takes notice; Trixie and Charley head into a 39 Steps–like run; and their lives depend on finding her manuscript’s secret source, literally a mystery writer’s inside joke. Genre fans will be delighted. Yet “it’s metafiction,” says Ardai, “that’s clever enough to be read straight.”