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.”
By Charles Ardai.
Hard Case Crime. 336 pages.
Charles Ardai’s one-man noir-fiction publishing house recently celebrated the release of its 50th book, Fifty-to-One, written by the publisher himself. To mark the occasion, Ardai included in the book a full-color gallery of the all-original covers he’s commissioned over the five years of Hard Case Crime’s existence. Octogenarian artists and young illustrators alike have contributed their most lurid work to give the line its distinctive look, which revives the pulp-paperback style popularized by Gold Medal Books in the fifties. Herewith, all 50 covers (really 51, as book No. 42, an old-fashioned double-novel package, has a double cover).
2. Fade to Blonde
By Max Phillips (September 2004); cover painting by Greg Manchess.
3. Top of the Heap
By Erle Stanley Gardner (October 2004); cover painting by Bill Nelson.
4. Little Girl Lost
By Richard Aleas (October 2004); cover painting by Robert McGinnis.
5. Two for the Money
By Max Allan Collins (November 2004); cover painting by Mark Texeira.
6. The Confession
By Domenic Stansberry (November 2004); cover painting by R.B. Farrell.
7. Home Is the Sailor
By Day Keene (March 2005); cover painting by R.B.Farrell and Greg Manchess.
8. Kiss Her Goodbye
By Allan Guthrie (March 2005); cover painting by Chuck Pyle.
By Donald E. Westlake (May 2005); cover painting by R.B. Farrell.
10. Plunder of the Sun
By David Dodge (May 2005); cover painting by Robert McGinnis.
11. Branded Woman
By Wade Miller (July 2005); cover painting by Glen Orbik.
12. Dutch Uncle
By Peter Pavia (July 2005); cover painting by R.B. Farrell.
13. The Colorado Kid
By Stephen King (October 2005); cover painting by Glen Orbik.
14. The Girl With the Long Green Heart
By Lawrence Block (November 2005); cover painting by Robert McGinnis.
15. The Gutter and the Grave
By Ed McBain (December 2005); cover painting by R.B. Farrell.
16. Night Walker
By Donald Hamilton (January 2006); cover painting by Tim Gabor.
17. A Touch of Death
By Charles Williams (February 2006); cover painting by Chuck Pyle.
18. Say It With Bullets
By Richard Powell (March 2006); cover painting by Michael Koelsch.
19. Witness to Myself
By Seymour Shubin (April 2006); cover painting by Larry Schwinger.
By Ken Bruen and Jason Starr (May 2006); cover painting by R.B. Farrell.
21. Straight Cut
By Madison Smartt Bell (June 2006); cover painting by Chuck Pyle.
22. Lemons Never Lie
By Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald E. Westlake) (July 2006); cover painting by R.B. Farrell.
23. The Last Quarry
By Max Allan Collins (August 2006); cover painting by Robert McGinnis.
24. The Guns of Heaven
By Pete Hamill (September 2006); cover painting by Larry Schwinger.
25. The Last Match
By David Dodge (October 2006); cover painting by William George.
26. Grave Descend
By John Lange (November 2006); cover painting by Greg Manchess.
27. The Peddler
By Richard S. Prather (December 2006); cover painting by Robert McGinnis.
28. Lucky at Cards
By Lawrence Block (February 2007); cover painting by Chuck Pyle.
29. Robbie’s Wife
By Russell Hill (March 2007); cover painting by R.B. Farrell.
30. The Vengeful Virgin
By Gil Brewer (April 2007); cover painting by Greg Manchess.
31. The Wounded and the Slain
By David Goodis (May 2007); cover painting by Glen Orbik.
By George Axelrod (June 2007); cover painting by Glen Orbik.
33. Songs of Innocence
By Richard Aleas (July 2007); cover painting by Glen Orbik.
By Cornell Woolrich (August 2007); cover painting by Arthur Suydam.
35. Kill Now, Pay Later
By Robert Terrall (September 2007); cover painting by Robert McGinnis.
By Ken Bruen and Jason Starr (October 2007); cover painting by R.B. Farrell.
37. Dead Street
By Mickey Spillane (November 2007); cover painting by Arthur Suydam.
38. Deadly Beloved
By Max Allan Collins (December 2007); cover painting by Terry Beatty.
39. A Diet of Treacle
By Lawrence Block (January 2008); cover painting by Chuck Pyle.
40. Money Shot
By Christa Faust (February 2008); cover painting by Glen Orbik.
41. Zero Cool
By John Lange (March 2008); cover painting by Greg Manchess.
42. Spiderweb and Shooting Star
By Robert Bloch (April 2008); cover paintings by Arthur Suydam and Larry Schwinger.
43. The Murderer Vine
By Shepard Rifkin (May 2008); cover painting by Ken Laager.
44. Somebody Owes Me Money
By Donald E. Westlake (June 2008); cover Painting by Michael Koelsch.
45. No House Limit
By Steve Fisher (July 2008); cover painting by R.B. Farrell.
46. Baby Moll
By John Farris (August 2008); cover painting by Robert McGinnis.
47. The Max
By Ken Bruen and Jason Starr (September 2008); cover painting By Glen Orbik.
48. The First Quarry
By Max Allan Collins (October 2008); cover painting by Ken Laager.
49. Gun Work
By David J. Schow (November 2008); cover painting by Joe Devito.
By Charles Ardai (December 2008); cover painting by Glen Orbik.