Charles Ardai’s new novel, Fifty-to-One, marks a milestone in his career both as an author and as an editor. In the latter case, the book stands as the 50th entry in the Hard Case Crime series, the publishing enterprise that he co-founded with Max Phillips five years ago. And while Ardai has already seen two of his own novels published in the series — Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence — both of those were presented under the pseudonym Richard Aleas (an anagram of Charles Ardai), meaning that Fifty-to-One is his official debut as a novelist under his own name.
To commemorate that fifty-novel mark, Fifty-to-One begins with a playful conceit, indulging the idea that Hard Case Crime started fifty years ago instead of fifty books ago, and setting its sometimes-madcap tale in the midst of the golden age of pulp publishing. Additionally, as a tribute to the forty-nine novels that came before, Ardai heads each chapter — in order — with the titles of the series’ books, giving himself the challenge of tying in various plot twists with a group of words and phrases that were never originally intended to work in tandem with one another. Grifter’s Game, the first book published by Hard Case Crime (by Lawrence Block, incidentally), becomes “Grifter’s Game” the chapter (sampled here), in which Tricia Heverstadt, a naive young woman from South Dakota, finds herself in big, bad New York City and in the hands of a con man needing to score a quick buck. But Tricia is far from helpless, and through a chain of events stemming from that first meeting, she’s soon written a pulp paperback that turns upside-down the lives of everyone around her.
As Fifty-to-One is hitting bookstores, Ardai and I discussed the new novel and the history of Hard Case Crime — the real history — as well as where it stands today.
The new novel’s structural premise — fifty chapters, fifty books — initially struck me as interesting on the one hand but maybe a little gimmicky on the other. After reading the book, however, I recognized that it may have helped push your creativity, challenging you to find unique ways to work within that structure. I love the “Witness to Myself” chapter, for example — the twist you take on that title. To what degree did you let those titles lead you and the plot in wild new directions — following wherever it took you — or was it a matter of having to rigorously plot it out in advance to fit all the pieces together?
The intelligent way to write Fifty-to-One — hell, the sane way — would have been to plot it out rigorously in advance. But that wouldn’t have been the fun way, and it’s not what I did. I started with the character of Trixie, coming to New York from South Dakota, wide-eyed and a bit naive but with a tough inner core, and then threw her up against my grifter, Charley Borden, who I knew was going to be my surrogate in the story, the guy who runs Hard Case Crime. From there, I just winged it, rarely knowing more than one or two chapters in advance precisely where I would go next — except that I knew all along what the ending would be, and I knew that Chapter 10 (“Plunder of the Sun”) would be the chapter in which I told the story of how a nightclub called the Sun got robbed. There were some other things I knew from the start — I knew there had to be a character named Robbie, and he had to be married, since we had a book called Robbie’s Wife; there had to be a virgin and she had to be vengeful about something because of The Vengeful Virgin; there had to be a blackmailer; there had to be a sailor, and a peddler, and so on. So I had a sense of what pieces I’d need to get onto the board eventually. But I didn’t know just how I was going to do it. And I figured if I could surprise and delight myself, I might be able to surprise and delight readers as well. (Incidentally, Witness to Myself is one of my favorites as well. I’m also fond of how smoothly Straight Cut worked itself in.)
This is the third Hard Case Crime novel you’ve written, but Fifty-to-One certainly has a lighter feel than the Richard Aleas books — perhaps because of that structural playfulness above or some general nostalgia in writing about a bygone era. Is the real Charles Ardai more a light, playful, postmodern writer, or more in tune with that bleak, almost deterministic vision that seemed to drive Songs of Innocence, for instance?
Saying that Fifty-to-One has a lighter feel than Songs of Innocence is a little like saying that Angelina Jolie is prettier than Quasimodo. The books I wrote as Richard Aleas are really tragedies, almost in the Greek sense: they’re about a well-intentioned but ultimately blind man discovering the terrible things he has done in the name of pursuing justice. They start out dark and just get darker, and if you aren’t feeling despair for the human race by the time you reach the last page, you’re a stronger man than me. Fifty-to-One is their diametric opposite: It’s a confection, a souffle. A romp through 1958 New York City on foot, car, subway, motorboat, and racehorse, inspired equally by the comic work of Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake and by classic comic crime films such as Some Like It Hot. Which is the real me, the light or the dark, Aleas or Ardai? There’s a bit of both, of course, just as the “real” Donald Westlake must be equal parts Westlake and Richard Stark. By nature I tend to see the world as a dark and awful place, but then again, I love to laugh; and sometimes the only thing capable of redeeming the ultimate cruelty and meaninglessness of existence is a good laugh. It’s like that great scene in Hannah and Her Sisters where Woody Allen, after trying to commit suicide but failing, goes to a Marx Brothers movie and you slowly see a big smile creep onto his face, and you know he’s found something worth living for at last. Joy is a precious thing. It gave me joy to write Fifty-to-One; for months, I walked around with a big smile, thinking of the things I could have happen next. And I hope it gives similar pleasure to readers.
Talking about the real Charles Ardai: What prompted you to step out from behind the pseudonym with this book?
Well, Charles Ardai may contain multitudes, but Richard Aleas doesn’t. It just felt wrong to have Aleas pen an out-and-out comedy. He’s much too serious a man for that.
Also, I like the hall-of-mirrors aspect to this book, and I thought using my real name would add another layer to it. The book is a fake memoir about a fake memoir; it’s about a man named Charles who edits a line of books called Hard Case Crime, so it makes sense for it also to be written by a man named Charles who edits a line of books called Hard Case Crime.
How does your role as editor of Hard Case Crime impact your work as an author for Hard Case Crime? Or more broadly, what has your work as an editor taught you about your chosen craft as a writer?
There is no better training for a writer than reading an enormous amount of work in one’s chosen field — and ideally reading both the best examples and the worst. This is hard for most people to do because the worst never get published. But as an editor, believe me, you see them. We get more than 1,000 submissions each year and I’m the only one here to read them, so I’ve had an invaluable opportunity to see what people do wrong as well as what they do right. There’s no better antidote to the temptation to indulge in a cliché than to see the same cliché used by two dozen other authors; there’s no better way to learn how not to set a scene or convey an emotion or plant a clue than to see other authors try to do it and fail. And of course it’s also priceless training to see someone try to do these things and succeed. My role as editor has given me the chance to see the full range, and I do think it’s made me a better writer.
It goes the other way as well. Being a writer makes me a better editor, I believe. I have a sense, when I sit down with another writer’s manuscript, of what went into writing it, what the writer was probably trying to achieve at various points, what sorts of issues can make it difficult to get from Point A to Point B in a plot; if you’ve never written a book yourself, you don’t have the same intimate familiarity with how it’s done. And of course you have a bit more credibility when you’re working with an author to revise his work if he knows you’re at least a decent writer yourself, that you’ve struggled with the same problems. I know a painter who says he won’t accept criticism of his art by anyone other than a fellow painter, and I’m sure there are novelists who feel the same way.
The title Fifty-to-One refers to a card game in which the odds are heavily stacked against the player. When you and Max Phillips started Hard Case Crime, did you feel the odds were against you? Or did you have an idea that there was an audience out there eager for such books?
We did feel the odds were against us — but we didn’t care. We didn’t get into this with the serious hope of making a ton of money (though we thought maybe we could make a little, and we have), or even of publishing 50 books (we thought we might do just six or twelve). The only thing we had in mind, really, was that we loved books like these and wished there were more out there for us to read, and wished we had the opportunity to write one or two ourselves. We had no idea whether anyone else would want to read these books. We just knew that we would. Five years later, we know better — lots of people share our passion, as it turns out. But the truth is we’d have been perfectly content if we’d just put out a dozen titles that had come and gone without making a big splash. It was a labor of love, and like all such, you have to be prepared for it never to become a viable commercial entity. That it has is icing on the cake.
And what’s behind readers’ interest and eagerness, do you think? Nostalgia there too?
Sure, nostalgia’s part of it. Some of our readers were around the first time books like these came out and it gives them a warm glow to see them return. But for a lot of readers it’s purely a matter of great stories and fun, sexy art being well worth the seven or eight bucks we charge. Most parts of the country, a movie ticket costs more, and that only gives you two hours of entertainment. One of our books’ll entertain you for a whole night if you’re a fast reader and several nights if you’re not. How many ways are there to get that much pleasure for less than a sawbuck?
Finally, fifty books is literally a milestone — a chance to look back as well as look ahead. How has your vision for Hard Case Crime — and/or your understanding of this specific genre — changed since the beginning?
Well, I’ve read a larger fraction of all the books published in the field — both new and old — since starting the line, and inevitably if you do that you start to see patterns emerge and get a sense for the broader shape of the field and the life’s work of some of the authors in it. It hasn’t changed my perception of the field a great deal, but what it has done is give me a heightened appreciation for just how hard it is to write a great crime novel, one that really leaves your heart racing, your breath short, and your mind forcibly expanded like a wingtip on a shoe-stretcher. Even the writers who are able to do it once are rarely able to do it again, and most writers toil their entire careers without
ever achieving that goal. And the competition is so very fierce, there are so many books….
But the very best still stand out, still have a big impact, and the chance to add to the tally of the very best is part of what drives me to keep going. We don’t hit that mark every time out — no one could, not twelve times a year — but every so often we do, and it feels great.
I’ve also come to appreciate just how much we’re on the cusp of the passing of an era. Since we launched the series, we’ve lost five of our authors: Donald Hamilton, Ed McBain, Richard Prather, Mickey Spillane, and most recently John Lange [one of Michael Crichton’s pseudonyms]. David Dodge’s daughter, Kendall, who wrote a touching afterword for The Last Match, just died, and so did Ellie Bloch, Robert Bloch’s widow. Three of our authors are in their 90s and, god bless them, going strong, but… the paperback era is dying, and its last representatives are few and dwindling. This is the last chance to work with them while they’re still around, and I feel honored to have gotten the chance to work with so many. I’m glad I didn’t start the line a few years later; I’m only sorry I didn’t think to start it a few sooner.
— Interviewed by Art Taylor