(Reviewed by Guy Savage NOV 16, 2008)
She lifted the hand, stared at it as though noticing for the first time the absence of a wedding band. “I wore one for a while,” she said. “It made my finger itch.”
Charles Ardai is one of the most fascinating figures in today’s publishing world. In 2004 Ardai, the founder and CEO of Juno, co-founded Hard Case Crime with author Max Phillips. The multi-talented Ardai has also penned three novels: Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence appeared under the pseudonym Richard Aleas, and Ardai’s latest novel, Fifty-to-One appears under the author’s own name. I came across my first Hard Case Crime novel a few years back, and I’ve been hooked ever since. In fact, I enjoy their titles so much that I made the unprecedented move of committing to the monthly book club, and when my small package arrives around the beginning of each month, I know that a good read awaits me. But apart from the solid selection of titles, more than that, as a fan of noir, hard-boiled and pulp fiction, I admire the effort behind this publishing company. In today’s world with publishing houses taking the Napoleon approach to the book biz (i.e. Let’s take it all), it’s marvelous to see Hard Case Crime specialize and create a niche in this market. When I think about Ardai and his decision to create Hard Case Crime, at the back of my mind is the thought: what would I do if I made money on an internet company and wanted to do something new with my life? The answer to that, my friends, is this: I’d overhaul an old abandoned deco-era cinema and show my favorites at nominal prices. Fat chance, I know, but I can dream. But Ardai, who must be, at core, an idealist, achieved his dream, and that takes determination, vision and guts.
As the fiftieth novel to be published by Hard Case Crime, Fifty-To-One marks a significant milestone in the company’s history, and consequently the novel is cleverly structured to mark and also to pay homage to the forty-nine novels previously published. Each chapter bears the title of one of those forty-nine novels, and it’s no mean feat that the chapter titles correspond chronologically to the publication of the novels in the Hard Case canon. While it may appear fairly easy to fit titles such as: Say It With Bullets and Kiss Her Goodbye into the storyline, I imagine Ardai lying awake at night to work chapter titles A Diet of Treacle, and Lemons Never Lie into the plot. But Ardai manages to weave the chapter titles into the plot so seamlessly that I made considerable headway into the novel before I twigged the strategy.
Also in this commemorative issue, the center of the book includes an insert illustrating all fifty covers of the novels published so far, and fans of pulp fiction will love the tacky details of these covers. It’s all part of the pulp revival, for the covers promise and deliver the sort of hard-boiled plots aficionados of the genre crave. Fifty-To-One includes some standard features of the genre wrapped up in an engaging plot with a plucky, resourceful heroine, and with a stroke of pure sly genius, in an art-imitates-life way, Ardai even manages to write Hard Case Crime into the novel.
As with every Hard Case title I’ve read so far, the action begins on page one. The novel begins with Tricia Heverstadt, a naïve young girl who arrives in New York from South Dakota. Within a few minutes of her arrival, she’s fleeced of her savings, and in the pursuit of revenge, she runs head-on into the offices of Hard Case Crime and its shady publisher, Charley Borden. Ever on the lookout for a quick buck (and not too fussy about how he gets it), Borden specializes in cheap knock-off titles such as Eye the Jury. To Tricia, Borden’s Hard Case Crime titles look like “drugstore crime novels, the covers lurid and peppered with ladies in negligees and men with guns.” Borden’s goal is to sweep the market with a tell-all expose about the mob, and Tricia decides to write the book. Taking a job as a dancer in a sleazy mob-owned nightclub, she sets out to gather the dirt on mobsters. In spite of eavesdropping every chance she gets, Tricia doesn’t pick up any tidbits about gangster life, but she’s a creative woman. Fabricating a tale about a disgruntled mobster who rips off his mafia boss, Tricia packs her fantastic story into a confessional bestseller supposedly written by an anonymous mobster.
Borden’s small fry-publishing company subsequently prints and circulates Tricia’s book, I Robbed the Mob! While Borden and Tricia hope for a bestseller, the book falls into the hands of some real life mobsters. The book’s tale of a fictional robbery uncannily mirrors a real-life heist, and soon Tricia and Borden are on the run from vengeful gangsters. Trying to stay out-of-sight, Tricia and Borden are forced by circumstance to form an unlikely team and look for answers and clues to help them identify the real robbers and locate the three million “smackers” of missing loot.
Hard Case Crime--the "real" Hard Case Crime--combines classic out-of-print titles along with new books. Some of the novels are dark and violent and some are peppered with humor. Fifty-To-One is definitely one of the humorous entries in the Hard Case Crime canon. Tricia and Borden’s misadventures result in a madcap romp through New York, but with female boxers, hard-edged dames and legions of gangsters, there are still moments of gritty violence and bloody encounters. What’s so particularly enjoyable here is the manner in which Hard Case Crime reinvents itself through fiction into the classic noir era of 50s America. Borden expounds his theories about the book business, noting that book reviewers are the bane of his existence, and even bringing Spillane, Westlake and Block into the plot (these are authors--by the way--with books published by the real Hard Case Crime). There were times when I read a sentence and then backtracked wondering if Borden’s thoughts were expressed in these lines or if he served a function as a mouthpiece for Ardai:
“They bite and claw and fight for every penny and if it takes a thumb in the eye or a knee in the groin to do it, that’s what they deal out. It’s every man for himself, winner take all. But for the winner who does take all, the one who comes out on top of the heap…” He fell silent, a dreamy look on his face. “And that’s going to be me. That’s going to be Hard Case Crime. We’re going to come out on top.”
These tongue-in-cheek moments just added to the fun, and this is achieved so smoothly and with a pleasant, wry sense of humor that it’s clear to readers that Ardai is quite at home in this era--and probably longs to be there--at least within the pages of this action-packed pulp novel.
- Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Fifty-to-One at Hard Case Crime
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Fifty-to-One (November 2008)
Writing as Richard Aleas:
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- MostlyFiction.com interview with Charles Ardai
- Wikipedia page for Charles Ardai
- Fresh Air interview with Charles Ardai
- MostlyFiction.com review of Songs of Innocence and Little Girl Lost
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About the Author:
Charles Ardai graduated from Hunter College High School in 1987 and Columbia College in 1991 as an English major specialziing in British romantic poetry. Shortly after graduation, he joined the New York office of the D.E. Shaw group, a worldwide investment and technology development firm, and has been with the company for 13 years. In only his third year there, Ardai was entrusted with the leadership of Juno, an Internet service provider that was conceptualized, organized and initially financed by the D.E. Shaw group. Ardai served as CEO of Juno until its merger with NetZero in 2001 and returned to the D.E. Shaw group as managing director, his current position.
Ardai is cofounder of Hard Case Crimes along with Max Phillips. Ardai has also published under the name Richard Aleas. His first novel, Little Girl Lost, was nominated for both an Edgar Award and Shamus Award. His second novel, Songs of Innocence, won the Shamus Award.
Ardai is married to writer Naomi Novak. They live in Manhattan.