Lots of great ideas start with a night of heavy drinking—it’s the actual execution that normally suffers. Not so for Hard Case Crime.
Charles Ardai and Max Phillips founded the Upper West Side-based publishing house to reintroduce readers to the hardboiled crime fiction of pulp novels five years ago after a night at the bar turned their typical discussion of a mutual love for the genre into plans for a pulp publishing company.
“It’s not modern day wise-asses having a laugh at the expense of an old style of pop culture,” Ardai tells me. “We don’t set ourselves apart from the pulp tradition and smirk at it. We’ve always bent over backwards from day one not to give people spoofs.”
Pulp novels, with their cheap price, skinny paperback appearance and prose about private eyes, grifters and sexy sirens, were massively appealing to readers in the 1940s and ’50s. But later decades found them steadily receding into obscurity and bargain bins, a point Ardai finds disheartening as an avid collector of pulp novels. His own collection numbers into the thousands.
“The Beat Generation and then the flower children and the hippies rejected the popular entertainment of their parents as they did everything else, and we decided the time had come to revive it because we love it,” Ardai says.
Ardai runs Hard Case Crime out of his apartment and makes every effort to ensure the novels published under its crown and pistol logo are accurate representations of the original genre—down to the spacing of the words on the pages. He explains that his goal is to “create books that could have been published in exactly the same form 50 years ago.”
The novels he publishes don’t just look like they could be originals from the high-pulp era of the ’50s; about half of the 60 books currently in print are re-prints of originals Ardai found sifting through his collection. The other half are the works of current writers or new works of authors from the original pulp era.
Hard Case Crime’s success—it’s sold more than two million books and been nominated five times in five years for the Edgar Allen Poe Award, the Oscars of the mystery novel field—stems largely from Ardai’s adherence to the business model that made pulp popular in the first place: keep books skinny, cheap and entertaining. He has also brought big name authors and artists from the original pulp era into his new project, including cover artist Robert McGinnis (the creator of the iconic Breakfast At Tiffany’s and Sean Connery-era James Bond movie poster artwork), as well as author Mickey Spillane, whose novel, I, the Jury, served as the genesis of the pulp genre in 1947.
Ardai stands by his commitment to “do pulp straight” by setting high standards for what exactly constitutes a Hard Case Crime novel.
“I like books that grab you by the lapels and don’t let go of you until you turn the last page,” he says. “People who buy our books know that they can pick up any of our books and enjoy it, but they can’t guess in advance what kind of a book it will be. It could be a story about a hit man, a detective or a guy robbing a bank. The thing they have in common is stylistic more than content. We try and find books that have a storytelling quality to them that makes it hard for you to stop reading at the end of any given chapter and put the book down.”
Ardai gauges a novel’s lapel-grabbing capabilities with what he calls the treadmill test.
“I get on my treadmill in the morning and take a manuscript with me and set the treadmill to accelerate. A really good manuscript, I will keep holding on to and running on this treadmill even when it’s dangerous to me. The best novels are the ones that keep me going until I’m at a steep incline and a fast pace.”
Two recent novels to pass the treadmill test are Hard Case Crime’s newest titles: Quarry in the Middle and The Corpse Wore Pasties.
Quarry is the newest book in the series following a hit man who finds himself in the middle of the territory war of rival casino owners after offering his services as an assassin for hire. On sale Oct. 27, it’s the latest work of long-time pulp novelist and best-selling author of Road to Perdition Max Allan Collins, and is his third book for Ardai.
Ardai works with long-time authors like Collins, but also first-time novelists like Pasties author Jonny Porkpie. Set in the New York City burlesque world, Pasties, out Nov. 24, highlights Porkpies DIY detective skills, which become necessary after the burlesque producer is accused of the on-stage murder of one of his performers. His desire to clear his name pits Porkpie against both the police and the only other potential suspects—the victim’s fellow burlesque performers. Porkpie must stave off the distractions of tassels and everything they’re (almost) covering in order to clear his name and find the real killer.
Porkpie, the author not the fictitious private eye, is both a burlesque performer and producer in his actual job. He says that almost four years of performing theatrical burlesque in New York City gave him ample material for a lurid pulp novel. He created Pasties out of an amalgamation of various performers, acts and experiences he’s come into contact with over the years.
“The book is sort of a tease and that’s what burlesque is,” Porkpie said. “It’s an artistic tease.”