Monday, March 16, 2009

When She Was Bad, by William Ard

I’ve resisted writing about covers by the great 20th-century paperback illustrator Robert McGinnis, primarily because there are just so damn many goods ones. Heck, you could construct a whole Web site around McGinnis’ elegant efforts (and there used to be just such a resource, until the artist himself forced its closure). But I can’t resist showcasing his jacket art for the 1960 Dell paperback edition of William Ard’s When She Was Bad.

This offers pretty much everything you could want in the way of pulpish crime-fiction imagery: a tough-guy private eye (you can tell he’s tough, because there’s that gun in his mitt) and a brunette and leggy lovely, who smokes, drinks, and isn’t above flirting a little to get what she desires. That last characteristic is one I can only assume to be true, based on the fact that these two are together in what looks like an apartment--and because of the suggestive phraseology of a teaser that appeared on the last page of another Dell book (Cain’s Woman, by O.G. Benson), published around the same time as When She Was Bad. After describing Ard’s protagonist, Danny Fontaine, as “First in the Hearts of Ladies ... and The Last Word in Private Eyes,” that teaser explained:
He’s a private eye par excellence. He never means to get involved--he has a beautiful red-headed bride. But, somehow, he always seems to be in trouble. Woman trouble.

So what can you expect from a guy who’s the image of Rock Hudson? The ladies just can’t keep their eyes--or their petal-soft hands--away.

Take his first case, for instance, involving a supposedly reserved English type. She was his client in a case of blackmail and murder. She was scared and she had every right to be.

But the lady had some definitely unladylike ideas--especially about the intimate ways in which she wanted Danny to “guard her body ...”
When She Was Bad was the second of two connected novels, following Ard’s As Bad As I Am (1959; later retitled Wanted: Danny Fontaine). Both featured Fontaine, although in the first, his given name is “Mike.” For some reason, whether due to a legal disagreement or because Ard simply thought “Danny” more fitting, the name was changed for When She Was Bad. In an extensive piece about William Ard, published in the late, great Armchair Detective magazine in 1982, Francis M. Nevins Jr. described Mike Fontaine as
thirty years old, big and dark and handsome, half French, half Irish, and such a compulsive romantic that he must help any and every troubled woman who crosses his path. Although he aspires to Broadway stardom, and once appeared in the male chorus of South Pacific, [Fontaine’s] penchant for rescuing ladies has caused most of his adult life to be spent behind bars.
In As Bad As I Am, Fontaine was finally paroled after five years spent in prison for killing a man who’d beaten a woman. One of the requirements of his return to society: that he refrain from social contact with females for the next 18 months. That was almost impossible, Nevins noted, because “Fontaine ... is one of those sexually magnetic men at first sight of whom women tear off their clothes and offer themselves.” (Lucky bastard!) Shortly after returning to New York City, Fontaine hits the streets in search of acting jobs and manages to send a red-headed starlet named Gloria Allen into a serious swoon. He also discovers that some of the upper rooms in his old family home on East 97th Street, now occupied by his younger sister and her cop husband, Harry Taggart, are being rented out to Puerto Rican prostitutes--an arrangement that’s filling his brother-in-law’s pockets with kickback dough. When Fontaine tries to clear those whores out, he riles Taggart, who wants to shoot him, only to be killed himself. The aftermath finds Taggart’s equally crooked superiors branding Fontaine as “a mad-dog killer,” and it falls largely to pretty Gloria Allen and a resourceful Broadway private eye named Barney Glines to save our hero’s sorry ass. Reviewing As Bad As I Am for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Anthony Boucher called it “a happy, exciting romance-melodrama of rogue cops, the theatre, and young love ...”

The action in When She Was Bad takes place two weeks after the previous story concludes. He’s recently wed the curvaceous Ms. Allen and has been hired as Barney Glines’ new detective partner. Things seem to be looking up. But Nevins found the story line in this novel disappointing. Here’s his description:
A titled, recently widowed and astonishingly sexy young Englishwoman comes to Manhattan and hires the Glines agency to find her stepdaughter, who is threatening to sell some of the lady’s passionate love letters to a London scandal sheet. Glines assigns the case to Danny, whose bride has just flown to Hollywood to appear in a Frank Sinatra-Dean Martin-Tony Curtis sex comedy. The real sex comedy, however, unfolds in Manhattan and Bermuda as the stepdaughter’s trail brings the hapless Fontaine into the eager clutches of uncountable nubile lovelies, every one of them lusting for his manly body. Sex titillation consumes most of the pages in this adventure, and what crime plot there is turns out to be as skimpy and flimsy as the bikini panties discarded by every female in the cast at first sight of Fontaine. Ard’s last novel to be published by a major house is so long, slow, clumsily paced, lackadaisically told and non-urgent that one could easily enough believe it was ghosted from an Ard outline or rough draft by somebody
infinitely less talented.
That’s an important final point, because while When She Was Bad may have been pretty bad on its own (despite Boucher’s description of it in The New York Times as “very breezy and amusing”), Ard was not a hack writer. Born in Brooklyn in 1922, he graduated from Dartmouth College, worked briefly for a detective agency in Manhattan (a credential that would prove useful in subsequent years), went into advertising copywriting, and later signed on as head of the publicity department at the New York offices of Warner Bros. Pictures, before quitting to become a full-time author. During the 1950s, recalls Dennis Miller, the public relations director at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania and the creator of a wonderful Web site dedicated to this author’s memory, William Ard “was one of the most popular hard-boiled writers of the 1950s. He was praised by critics from the St. Louis Dispatch to The New York Times.” Influenced jointly by John O’Hara and Raymond Chandler, Ard, like Ross Macdonald, resisted the powerful trend after World War II to pen a harder, more sadistic brand of detective story, and instead constructed his yarns around generally decent protagonists and others who didn’t employ violence for the sake of violence, and who engaged in sex as a means of restoring their humanity rather than satisfying any needs for perverse dominance.

Ard’s best-known character has to be soft-boiled New York shamus Timothy Dane, introduced in his first novel, The Perfect Frame (1951), and the star of eight subsequent novels. As The Thrilling Detective Web Site explains, Dane is “a pretty normal guy. Not too flashy, not particularly eager for action, and far from some super stud that all women find irresistible. ... [He’s just] trying to do his job the best way he can and keep his integrity, if possible. Sure, he carries a .45, and he’s not afraid to use it, and he walks the walk and talks the talk, but he’s surprisingly compassionate for the time, very similar at times to the later Lew Archer and Michael Collins’ Dan Fortune.” Dane’s opening adventures are told in first-person, but author Ard soon gave that up in favor of the third-person viewpoint, as he sent Dane into danger in Private Party (1953), Mr. Trouble (1954), and the book Nevins contended is “by far the most powerful and exciting of Ard’s private eye novels,” Hell Is a City (1955). The final Dane outing, published in 1957, was The Root of His Evil, which has also appeared as Deadly Beloved (not to be confused with Max Allan Collins’ 2007 novel of that same name).

Ard went on to create several other private investigators, including not only the aforementioned Danny Fontaine, but also Johnny Stevens (about whom he wrote under the nom de plume “Ben Kerr”), Luke MacLane, Lou Largo (whose career was continued after Ard’s death by writers John Jakes and Lawrence Block), and Barney Glines (though, as Nevins stipulated, this was not the same Glines who appeared in When She Was Bad--“Ard seems to have been almost pathologically careless about recycling that name”). In addition, he wrote a series of Westerns under the pseudonym “Jonas Ward.”

In his Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994), William L. DeAndrea defined Ard as a “fast and sloppy” writer, but added that he “had the ability to grab readers and make them care about the characters.” Nevins, though clearly a fan of several Ard works, expressed similar sympathies in his Armchair Detective article:
[Ard] wrote rapidly and didn’t always revise as much as he should. Although his style is readable and efficient, his work lacks the haunting memorable, marvelously quotable lines that are common in Chandler and Macdonald. Despite his gifts of pace and economy and his usual story premises, his plots have a tendency to fall apart, especially when he plays with the motifs of classical detective fiction. He seemed to have a mental block that made him forget the character names he used in one book and recycle them unwittingly a few books later; sometimes he changed a person’s name halfway through the same book.
Still, Nevins insisted that even William Ard’s worst stories “are infused with raw readability, and his best are among the finest hard-boiled novels of the ’50s.”

Unfortunately, this author’s promise was abruptly terminated on March 12, 1960, when he died of cancer at the young age of 37. In the years since, Nevins lamented, Ard “has been all but forgotten, his books unreprinted, his career unmentioned even in the most comprehensive works on mystery fiction.”

But, I’m pleased to say today, it’s not unmentioned everywhere ...

READ MORE:Down I Go, by Ben Kerr,” by August West (Vintage Hard-boiled Reads); “True Confessions: The Diary (1952), by William Ard,” by Curtis Evans (The Passing Tramp).


Frank Loose said...

Fascinating history. I especially liked reading the additional information via the links you provided. I was not really aware of Ard and i appreciate the effort you put into this bio of him. I am going to try to track down a copy of Hell's A City --- what a Great TItle!

Dennis Miller said...

Great post! And thanks for the kind words about my Ard site. I'll put a link in my news section.
Again, thanks for an informative post and for recognizing an undeservedly forgotten writer.
Dennis Miller

Dennis Miller said...

I forgot to mention, I love your site and have bookmarked it.

Juri said...

One of the Lou Largo books by John Jakes, GIVE ME THIS WOMAN, is a great sleazy PI novel, worth reprinting. (Unless Jakes doesn't want this kind of books of him reprinted.)

Frank Loose said...

I'm no expert, but the books that Jakes wrote under the name of William Ard were probably commissioned as "work for hire," in which case the copyright holder (probably the Ard estate) would own reprint rights and have final say on new editions, not Mr. Jakes. All they'd need would be a publisher to come knockin.

Anonymous said...

William Ard's book, When She Was Bad, appears in the opening scene as the first book in the movie, Who Killed Teddy, starring Sal Mineo. It can be seen on Youtube under that title.