Monday, August 24, 2009

Crime on His Hands


I couldn’t fail to feature on this page the cover of Russell Atwood’s paperback novel, Losers Live Longer. Not only is Losers the brand-new follow-up to East of A (1999), the “tough little shaggy dog tale” that introduced New York City private eye Payton Sherwood and launched the authorial career of Atwood, a former managing editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine; but the book boasts a jacket illustrated by the renowned American artist Robert McGinnis--and a horizontal jacket, to boot.

“Horizontal covers were never really popular,” explains Charles Ardai, the editor of Manhattan-based Hard Case Crime (HCC), which publishes Losers Live Longer. “They’re a quirky aberration, and are unlikely ever to catch on. But I happen to like them.” Asked to name his favorite horizontal book front, Ardai (left) says it “may be the Regency edition of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters.” (A few other examples of the breed can be found here.)

When it comes to crime-fiction covers, Hard Case claims at least a modicum of celebrity. Ever since Ardai, the founder and CEO of Internet service provider Juno, and writer-designer Max Phillips launched the paperback-only imprint in 2004, it has been accumulating acclaim in almost equal measure for its pulpish, sexy, fast-moving plots and its wonderfully lurid jackets, all suggestive of the cheap softcover originals that were churned out by Gold Medal and other publishing houses after World War II, and were peddled in corner stores and truck stops. Many of HCC’s titles have been reprints of long-out-of-print work by veteran wordsmiths such as Lawrence Block, Wade Miller, David Dodge, Richard S. Prather, Donald E. Westlake, A.A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner), and David Goodis. But peppered amongst those classics have been fresh and equally tough tales by Max Allan Collins, Dominic Stansberry (The Confession), Christa Faust (Money Shot), and the writing team of Ken Bruen and Jason Starr. HCC has also issued a few never-before-seen works, such as Honey in His Mouth, by Doc Savage writer Lester Dent, and The Dead Man’s Brother, by fantasy novelist Roger Zelazny.

Ardai wasn’t even a gleam in his parents’ eyes when many of HCC’s books first debuted. (“As my mathematician friends would put it, I’m 39.8 years old,” he concedes. “Keeping 40 at bay through heroic measures.”) Yet this New York native, Columbia University graduate, and Edgar Award-winning author has become something of a, well, savior for crime and mystery fiction of the mid-20th century. More than a few novelists, critics, and bloggers, when lamenting the unavailability of particular volumes by long-forgotten authors, have uttered variations on the lament, “If only Hard Case Crime would bring them back into print ...” Because Ardai works closely with illustrators old and new to create his line’s distinctive covers (some of which are now available for purchase on T-shirts), he has also gained recognition as a historian of paperback jackets.

Recently, I took the opportunity to interview Charles Ardai via e-mail. We discussed the origins of Hard Case Crime, how he works with cover artists old and new, how idiosyncratic modern American tastes affect his line’s book fronts, and the future of both HCC and its newer sister line, The Adventures of Gabriel Hunt.

J. Kingston Pierce: Can I assume that, ever since you started planning Hard Case Crime, you’ve been concerned about the covers of these books? How important do you think the jackets are both to selling your books and establishing the Hard Case “brand”?

Charles Ardai: They’re absolutely essential. Hard Case Crime wouldn’t be Hard Case Crime without the covers, any more than a James Bond picture would be a James Bond picture without Monty Norman’s theme music, or a BLT would be a BLT without the B. In each case, you’re looking at an integral element that adds flavor and color and texture and juice. (Note to self, idea for new product:
bacon juice.)

Cover art was always central to pulp fiction--back when these stories were sold primarily on newsstands in crowded train stations and such, you wouldn’t get your two bits out of a commuter’s pocket if your cover didn’t jump off the rack, grab the sucker by his lapels, and drag him to the cash register. The same was true when it came time to get readers to pick your paperback original out of the wire rack at their local drugstore, and it’s no less true today. Most book covers are tedious, visually unimaginative, tired; they drone nasally instead of singing a siren song. Our covers are designed to tease, to tempt, to infect with curiosity. To make the reader say, “I sure hope the story behind that cover is good, but even if it’s not, I’ve still got to get that book, just to have that cover on my shelf.”

JKP: So what are the most important elements of a Hard Case cover? Beautiful women? Dangerous men? The opportunities for seduction? The certainty of violence? What??

CA: How does the old song go from The Night They Raided Minsky’s? “Take 10 terrific girls/But only nine costumes/And you’re cooking up something grand.” All but one of our first five dozen covers features a beautiful woman, in whole or in part, and the one that didn’t was one of our worst sellers. It’s not an original thought but ... sex sells. Some of our covers show only one person, some two, some three or four; some feature action, while others are very still; some have an atmosphere of menace while others are more seductive. But they all have a gorgeous femme fatale, usually with less clothing on than you might wear to church.

The other element that’s critical isn’t one of content but of style: The painting has to be a classical painting done in the style of the mid-century masters--McGinnis, [Robert] Maguire, [Rudolph] Belarski, [James] Bama, [James] Avati, [Rafael] De Soto, and so on. The fleshiness is critical; the dimensionality; the painterly brushstrokes; the classical rendering of anatomy. No airbrushing and for god’s sake, nothing digital. Just oil paint on canvas, or egg tempera made with real eggs, and the hand of a master on the brush. That’s what gives our covers their look.

JKP: Back in 2006, you told Denise Hamilton of the Los Angeles Times: “It’s ironic. You could show a completely naked woman on a paperback cover in the 1950s, as long as she was facing away from the viewers, but today, covers that risqué wouldn’t fly with at least some retailers.” What has changed over the last 50 years? Why were the covers less puritanical during the Eisenhower and Kennedy decades than they are now?

CA: Since we’ve established that I’m less than 40 years old (even if only by a few months), I don’t know that I’m qualified to say what things were really like 50 years ago--but I get the sense that mild titillation was acceptable in selected semi-public locations then in a way it isn’t today. Even 30 years ago, when I was a kid, I remember going to the local barbershop and poring wide-eyed through the pile of “men’s magazines” available for patrons to peruse while waiting for a chair to open up. I can’t imagine a barbershop getting away with that today, especially one that services both adults and children. But back then, it was accepted--even expected. I suspect the same was true of the paperback racks in drugstores. We’re not talking hardcore pornography here--just the occasional bare bottom or maybe, once in a blue moon, a hint of a nipple through a too-thin top. No one’s ever been hurt by seeing either. But today’s retailers are so terrified of giving offense (and with justification--witness the foofaraw over Janet Jackson’s instant of exposure) that they’d rather play it safe and often won’t carry a book if the cover contains the slightest hint of something that might offend someone. (Over the years we’ve been told “no bare feet,” and “some stores won’t take bellybuttons,” and “you can’t show side cleavage”--honestly, I didn’t even know what “side cleavage” was, or at least that there was a name for it. But there you go. There’s a name for everything, and if it might conceivably give someone an erection, there’s a store that won’t tolerate seeing it on a book cover.) I try to ignore these comments as much as possible and just have our painters paint the best covers they can. Once in a while I’ll tell Bob McGinnis, “Could you close her robe up a little bit?” but that’s as bad as the censorship gets.

JKP: How far have you tried to push the bounds of what you think readers or booksellers will accept? Can you give specific examples of Hard Case covers that test the limits? And in what respects do those covers test public acceptance?

CA: We have a book coming out in 2010 called Quarry’s Ex [written by Max Allan Collins] and its cover features a beautiful woman standing topless in a swimming pool while a man with a gun looms over her. We’re looking down at her and between the angle and the position of her hands, you can’t see any more of her breasts than you would if she were wearing a bikini top--but the fact is, you can tell that she isn’t. (If nothing else, there’s no string around her neck or going across her back.) And there was some discussion about whether it would be too racy--which is silly, really, because you can’t see anything. Believe me, I’ve tried, and you can’t. So I went to the folks at Dorchester Publishing [which handles HCC’s printing and distribution] and asked if they were willing to take a chance on it. And I’m happy to say that they were. It’s probably our most risqué cover to date--and it’s not all that risqué.

Another one I thought might be iffy was the cover for my second Richard Aleas novel, Songs of Innocence [2007], which shows a completely naked woman clutching a large blue teddy bear in front of her--I thought we might take hits for both the nudity and the juxtaposition with an object that suggests childhood. But it was the right image for the story, so we went with it, and we didn’t get any complaints at all.

The one cover we did, bizarrely, get a complaint about once was the cover for Max Phillips’ Fade to Blonde [2004], which someone described as containing a giant penis. I stared at that cover for an hour to try to figure out what this person was talking about, and all I could think of was that maybe thought the woman’s bare, bent left knee somehow looked phallic. It sounds crazy, but then we’re a society that sees Jesus in grilled cheese sandwiches, so anything’s possible.

JKP: You have had success in working with some very famous paperback illustrators, from Robert McGinnis and Glen Orbik, to Ron Lesser and Ken Laager. Given the noteworthiness of your line’s covers, and the concurrent dearth of other publishers wanting equally retro work, have you ever had trouble landing an illustrator you really wanted? Any good stories along those lines?

CA: There are some painters who started their career in the pulps and who are still working today, but who don’t have an interest in going back to their roots. The great James Bama, who’s a sweet, generous, kind man, retired from commercial illustration in 1971 and moved west to Wyoming to become a fine art painter, mostly of Western images. We showed him what we were doing and he was very enthusiastic about it, but he stuck to his guns (literally). He wrote, “Have turned down Malcolm Forbes, Clint Eastwood, and George Lucas, and it gets easier all the time.”

Ray Kinstler similarly felt he’d moved on from the pulp work he’d done half a century ago and didn’t have either the time or desire to dip into that well again.

But the one I’m saddest about is Robert Maguire. I had a good conversation with him shortly before his death [in 2005], and I got the sense that he would really have loved to give it a try, but he felt he couldn’t do it anymore--that any painting he produced wouldn’t have been up to his old standards. I begged him to give it a shot anyway--even a lesser Maguire painting would still have been a marvelous thing to see. But he wouldn’t do it; and then a few months later he was gone.

JKP: I’m particularly interested in McGinnis, as he’s the grand-daddy of the mid-20th-century paperback illustrators. How did you land him for your stable; how much convincing did he really need to work for HCC? And what’s your working relationship with him now, after he’s done several Hard Case covers?

CA: Bob is a joy to work with. He’s working on his 10th cover for us right now, and it’s a very special one, since it’s for one of Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne novels, and that’s probably the series for which Bob is best known. (That, or the Carter Brown books.)

I first found out that Bob was still painting from Glen Orbik, who suggested I give him a call. I was tongue-tied and uncertain, but I girded myself and picked up the phone--and as soon as we started talking I knew it would be a great relationship. For one thing, he’s a gentleman and a pro and ridiculously modest (even though he has nothing to be modest about); beyond that, he has a real passion for the sort of books we’re publishing and clearly has an enormous amount of fun getting to do this sort of painting again. He doesn’t have a lot of time available--he’s still very heavily in demand--but he’s always made time for us and I’m very grateful for it.

The working relationship is simple: I send him a description of the book and a few weeks later he sends me a batch of sketches the description has inspired. I pick one, say “Put some more clothes on her, please,” and we’re off to the races.

JKP: That Halliday book for which McGinnis is now creating a cover--which Mike Shayne novel is it?

CA: It’s called Murder Is My Business [1945] and it’s my favorite of the series. It’s set during World War II, on the home front, when the mother of an army private killed in a hit-and-run accident down in El Paso [Texas] hires P.I. Mike Shayne to investigate. It’s got a twisty plot like you wouldn’t believe, and everything comes together just right in the end.

JKP: With the attention and applause won by HCC’s covers, do you think other publishers have become more receptive to commissioning retro-style book jackets? Both Megan Abbott’s novels and those by Linda L. Richards (Death Was the Other Woman, Death Was in the Picture) have sported fronts that might have worked on HCC releases (all of them by Richie Fahey). And the new Charlie Chan line from Academy Chicago Publishers offers equally throwback-style art (by Chris Rahn). I’m not sure those jackets would have been green-lighted without HCC’s lead. What do you think?

CA: I do think we’re seeing more retro-style covers now than there were five years ago when we started publishing; I don’t know that we deserve the credit for it, but the wide exposure we have received certainly couldn’t have hurt. Suddenly people were seeing our covers on TV and in newspapers and magazines, and of course in bookstores, and art directors at other publishing houses are apt to be influenced by such things. I know of several cases where one of our painters has been approached for a retro, pulp-style illustration job because an art director has seen his work for us, and I’m thrilled when that happens. I like the idea that we can be a showcase for our artists’ talent.

JKP: Surely you have favorites among the Hard Case paperbacks so far. Which have you liked the best? And which have been most successful in actually selling books?

CA: I couldn’t pick favorites among our artists’ work; I’d offend whoever I didn’t name. But I can tell you some of the covers that have attracted the most comments from the public: Greg Manchess’ covers for The Vengeful Virgin and Fade to Blonde; Glen Orbik’s for The Max and Blackmailer; Robert McGinnis’ for The Girl with the Long Green Heart and The Last Quarry; Sharif Tarabay’s for Killing Castro; Ricky Mujica’s for The Corpse Wore Pasties. There are plenty of others, too. We’ve really only had a handful that have drawn any sort of negative comments, and over the course of five years, that’s pretty remarkable.

JKP: OK, now let me ask you a broader question, since you’re obviously interested in book-cover design: Can you name your five favorite classic crime-fiction book jackets?

CA: Confining myself to paperbacks:
JKP: Every once in a while, I’ve noticed, a Hard Case cover will deliberately suggest some other, classic paperback jacket. Orbik’s cover for David Goodis’ The Wounded and the Slain, for instance, echoed McGinnis’ 1960 Avon Books cover for He and She, written by Edward Le Comte. Lesser’s illustration for Honey in His Mouth, by Lester Dent, is remarkably akin to the cover he himself created for the 1972 paperback edition of Edward S. Aarons’ The Decoy. Undoubtedly, I’m neglecting a few other examples of this trend. How is the decision made to create such echoes of paperback covers past? And does anyone notice except for other illustrators and people like me, who are on the lookout for copycat covers?

CA: I don’t think too many people notice, unless they have your encyclopedic knowledge of the field; but we do like to tuck little Easter eggs into our books when we can, just for the fun of it. The best-known example is the copy of our first John Lange book, Grave Descend, that the woman on the cover of our second John Lange book, Zero Cool, is reading. In the case of the Lesser cover, Ron decided to go back to the original reference photographs he’d shot decades earlier of the model who posed for The Decoy and bring her back for a new appearance some 40 years later. I liked the idea--it seemed fun to me that this woman who is now probably in her 60s would get a second chance to see herself on a book cover.

For the most part, though, we try to give people something they haven’t seen before. It’s hard--there are only so many ways to pose a woman in a way that suggests mystery, suspense, or crime and still fits on a paperback cover while leaving room for type, and since there were hundreds of paperbacks published between 1940 and 1970, almost all those poses have been used somewhere, most of them multiple times.

And of course sometimes you want to remind people of a certain classic image--like when I told Glen Orbik I wanted to do a keyhole cover for E. Howard Hunt’s House Dick, or when we asked Rick Farrell for the giant dice on the cover of [Steve Fisher’s] No House Limit.

JKP: Let’s talk about the cover of Losers Live Longer, Russell Atwood’s P.I. Payton Sherwood mystery, which is due out this week. It’s HCC’s first horizontal cover. It only reads properly when placed on its side, rather than straight up as normal. Why was the decision made for artist McGinnis to create such a cover?

CA: Doing a horizontal cover is something I’d had in mind almost from the start of the line. I was just waiting for the right book to come along, one with a title like Turnabout or On My Side or The Long Way. When Russell Atwood agreed to change the title of his sequel to East of A from Between C and D to Losers Live Longer, I knew we had our sideways cover at last. (It’s “longer,” get it? Ah, never mind.)

And once we decided we were going to do a sideways cover, what better artist than McGinnis to paint it? After all he’d painted one of the few horizontal covers of the golden age--Carter Brown’s The Sad-Eyed Seductress--and he’s famous for the length of his women’s legs. The cover basically designed itself.

JKP: What are the downsides of releasing horizontal covers? How do you think bookstores will react to this deviation from the norm?

CA: So far, everyone who’s seen it has been very enthusiastic. The truth is that most books in bookstores are shelved spine-out anyway, and it’s got a completely ordinary spine. Those few stores that like to shelve our books with the covers facing out can either spend the extra two-and-a-half inches of shelf space necessary to show it horizontally, or they can show it vertically and leave it to the reader to pull it off the shelf and rotate it 90 degrees. Not a big deal either way. And I think the fact that it looks different from other books is a plus. Anything that makes people take a second look at
your books is a plus.

JKP: I notice that the back cover of Losers Live Longer features a slightly different image of the same woman who’s featured on the front. Did you commission that back-jacket art specifically, or was it simply an alternative version of the cover art that you were considering, and couldn’t not use somewhere?

CA: For Losers, we did a photoshoot for Bob and sent him a stack of images of a gorgeous, busty model brandishing a gun on a sofa. There were several poses we both liked and it was very hard to choose among them. Finally we did choose one--but when, a month later, I opened the box from Bob containing the finished painting, I found two paintings and a note explaining that he’d found himself tempted by a second pose and gone ahead and painted both.

Now, when you find yourself with two McGinnis paintings in your hands, you don’t just send one back--you find a way to use them both. And that’s what we did.

JKP: Late last year, you celebrated the issuing of your line’s 50th book, which you’d written: Fifty-to-One. That screwball-noir novel used all of the preceding HCC book titles as chapter headings, and its plot concerned crimes associated with a small book-publishing company in mid-20th-century Manhattan, coincidentally called Hard Case Crime. How did that project come into being?

CA: I wasn’t sure what to do to commemorate the 50th book, but I wanted to do something special, and one of my notions was to get all of our living writers to write a short story, and the twist would be that each writer would tell a new story based on the title of another writer’s book. So, for instance, I sent Stephen King a note suggesting some plots that might go with the title Lemons Never Lie (it could be about a used-car salesman!), and I wrote to Don Westlake with some ideas about what he could do with the title The Colorado Kid (it could be about a boxer!). And basically no one liked this idea ... except me. I had such a blast coming up with new meanings for all our titles that I decided I’d just write the whole book myself and use all 50 titles, and use them in order, too. I love ridiculous challenges like that.

JKP: You wrote Fifty-to-One under your own name. But your two earlier books--Little Girl Lost (2004) and Songs of Innocence--both carried the byline “Richard Aleas.” Why did you adopt that pseudonym, and are you still glad you did?

CA: I did it originally for two reasons: a desire to separate my persona as editor of the line from my persona as author of one of the books in the line, and a desire to participate in the great pulp tradition of writing under fake names. Lawrence Block was Chip Harrison and Paul Kavanagh and Sheldon Lord; Donald Westlake was Tucker Coe and Alan Marshall and (famously) Richard Stark; Evan Hunter was Ed McBain, and even “Evan Hunter” wasn't the name he was born with. I wanted to play, too.

So far, it hasn’t caused any confusion. (It also hasn't been much of a disguise, since I freely acknowledge it. But it's still fun.)

JKP: I read recently in one of your e-mail notes to readers that you plan to reduce the frequency of HCC releases next year. You’ve been putting out one book a month, but you’ll start releasing them on a bimonthly schedule in 2010. Why the change?

CA: A bunch of reasons. I’ve basically been publishing a book a month for five years, and it’s exhausting--we have a total full-time staff of zero, meaning it’s just me doing all the reading, buying all the books, negotiating all the contracts, commissioning all the cover art, getting the art shot and scanned, copy-editing and proofreading every line of every book, doing all the publicity, standing in line at the post office to mail out the author copies, and so on. And I love it--but five years of it will wear anyone out. And when I added the new Gabriel Hunt adventure series on top of it, it was just too much.

Then, too, I’ve had a feeling for a while that we might be glutting the market. Yes, there are some diehards who have read every book we’ve put out--but for every one of those that I hear from, I hear from 10 others who tell me how much they love our books but say they’ve got a dozen or more stacked up waiting to be read. Similarly, it’s hard to get reviewers excited about each new title when just four weeks later there’s going to be another one coming down the pike. Somewhere along the way, the release of a new Hard Case Crime title stopped being a noteworthy or newsworthy event, and just became something that happened like clockwork. My hope is that by publishing less frequently, we’ll manage to command a bit more attention for each title.

And that of course gets us to the subject of sales. The economy is lousy and everyone is suffering; I’m not saying we’re suffering more than anyone else. But our sales have declined, and I’m hopeful that a less frequent schedule, where each title is a bit more of an “event,” might perk our sales up a bit. We do, after all, need to make money; this is a labor of love, but it’s also a business, and if sales drop below a certain level, we won’t be able to keep it going.

So: the bimonthly schedule. Who knows if it will help or hurt in terms of sales--but at least it will give me a chance to breathe a little.

JKP: Can you tell me a bit more about how Hard Case is doing, business-wise? Is it healthy enough?

CA: We work with Dorchester Publishing for production, sales and distribution, and they’ve done a terrific job consistently over the past five years. They handle most of the business issues for us, so we’re insulated from the worst of it. But I know they’re wrestling with the same tough situation all publishers are, and I do think it’s tougher for small houses than large ones. There’s just less of a cushion to fall back on. Fortunately, there are still a lot of readers out there and you can sell enough books to stay afloat if you work very hard at it. But it’s definitely harder now than it was even just a few years ago, and I would not be surprised if Hard Case Crime weren’t around forever. Not to sound noirish and fatalistic, but nothing lasts forever.

That said, even if we were to close up shop tomorrow (which we won’t), I’d feel proud of the work we’ve done. Sixty-plus books in five years, including five Edgar nominees (and one winner), two Shamus winners [Fade to Blonde and Songs of Innocence], nominees for numerous other awards, write-ups in every major newspaper and magazine in the country ... it’s nothing to sneeze at. It’s a hell of a lot more than I ever thought would come of it when Max [Phillips] and I first cooked up the idea for the line. We thought maybe we’d publish six books and that would be the end of it.

JKP: I was surprised to learn that you are going to issue Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear as a Hard Case title in December. I don’t think of Sherlock Holmes as being a hard-boiled fictional protagonist. What led to this release plan?

CA: Like doing a horizontal cover, I’d wanted from very early on to repackage a classic in full Hard Case Crime “drag.” This would be a tip of the hat to the work of publishers like Signet and Lion and Pocket Books, which would publish 25-cent editions of works of literature and try to get people to buy them by slapping the most lurid covers imaginable on them. So, for instance, Signet’s cover for [George] Orwell’s 1984 featured a sultry-eyed dame in an unzipped jumpsuit with a lapel button prominently displaying the word “SEX,” while Lion’s cover for Frankenstein featured a bosomy, lipstick-wearing redhead falling out of an off-the-shoulder dress. And I thought, what classic could we reprint that could amuse people with a comparably inappropriate cover image, but that would also legitimately belong in our line? And that led me to The Valley of Fear [1915], since it is, when you get right down to it, a hard-boiled detective story. Not because Holmes is a hard-boiled character himself, but because half the book isn’t about Holmes at all--it takes place in the U.S. and tells the story of a Pinkerton agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a corrupt fraternal organization that rules a dirty mining town in Pennsylvania. It’s violent and cruel and dark, and it leads to an ending that’s as despairing and doom-laden as any Cornell Woolrich novel. Leslie Klinger, who won the Edgar for his New Annotated Sherlock Holmes [2004], called the book “the first real ‘hard-boiled’ detective story,” and there’s a lot of truth to that. So half the fun of reprinting it is startling people with a cover painting they’ll immediately think is inappropriate for this staid classic, and then the other half of the fun is watching them discover that this staid classic is actually a tough, mean, hard-boiled crime story after all. The old double-switcheroo.

JKP: Tell me the process whereby a vintage novel becomes a Hard Case title. There are lots of older books, yet most never appear in your line. How do you discriminate? What are you looking for in an HCC reprint? And do you mostly search out the rights to reissue older books, or do heirs of the authors come to you with offers?

CA: I’ve been reading crime novels for the better part of 30 years; I started young. And I remember the ones I really loved. When the time comes to do a reprint, I just go to my shelves, pull some books I remember liking, reread them to make sure I’m not misremembering, and then look into how recently they’ve been reprinted and whether the rights might be available. Sometimes I have to drop a book because someone else has brought out an edition recently; other times, I fail to locate the author or the author’s heirs. But generally if I keep at it long enough I manage to turn them up, and though a few authors (or heirs) have said no to us, that’s pretty rare. It took years to find the granddaughter of Steve Fisher, or the three children (by two different wives) of the original Robert B. Parker--but I found them eventually. And the detective work necessary to track them down can be fun in and of itself.

Once in a while we’re approached by an author or his children--but for the most part that hasn’t worked out. I’m always grateful to get suggestions and I always follow up on them ... but most books just aren’t good enough to reprint, and we have to say no to nearly as large a fraction of reprint suggestions as we do of new submissions.

JKP: Can you give me an example of an author whose descendants you’ve failed so far to turn up?

CA: Sure. Ed Lacy, whose real name was Leonard Zinberg--no luck.

JKP: Not long ago, I had the chance to interview Ben Terrall, the son of vintage paperback detective novelist Robert Terrall (aka Robert Kyle). Two years ago, you added Terrall’s Kill Now, Pay Later (one of his Ben Gates mysteries) to your lineup. Can you tell me specifically how that arrangement came about?

CA: That’s actually one of the rare exceptions to the rule: That was a case where I was approached by one of the author’s children (his daughter Susan, in this case). She suggested that her father’s work might be suitable for our line and asked if I’d ever read it. As it happens, I had--one of his books was on my very first list of reprint candidates when we started pitching Hard Case Crime to publishers. When she contacted me I sat down and read pretty much everything he’d written, and of the lot I enjoyed Kill Now, Pay Later the most. That’s why we did that one. And I’m glad he got to see the new edition before he passed away [in late March of this year]. It gave him a lot of pleasure.

JKP: It must be frustrating to know that there are so many good out-of-print crime novels gathering dust, but so few opportunities to reissue them for Hard Case. How long is your wish list of titles you’d like to see Hard Case bring out in the future?

CA: Believe it or not, we’ve gotten to most of the books I originally set out to do--Branded Woman, A Touch of Death, No House Limit ... these were all on my original wish list, and there they are now, in bookstores. I’m not saying there aren’t more ... there are, and there always will be ... but it’s not a list of 100 titles. Maybe 20 or 25, and some of them we won’t get for one reason or another.

JKP: Can you name a few books you’d like to see as Hard Case titles, but that you haven’t the money or time or rights to bring out? Any “holy grail” books you’d like to score?

CA: When Gore Vidal was a young man he wrote a pseudonymous novel for Gold Medal [Thieves Fall Out, by “Cameron Kay”] that has never been reprinted; I’d love to do that one. We talked with him about it and he considered it, but ... in the end he declined. Similarly, I’d love to bring out a new edition of Alan Furst’s fantastic, Edgar-nominated first novel [Your Day in the Barrel, 1976] ... but he made it clear that’s not going to happen. It’s just too different from the work he’s publishing now, and it’s not something he wants associated with his name (which I think is a shame, but it’s certainly his privilege). Martin Cruz Smith wrote a series of novels as “Simon Quinn” about an operative for the Vatican, and two of them are good enough to reprint--one of them especially. He came close to saying yes; actually he did say yes, but then changed his mind at the last minute. And there are others. But there’s no shortage of people who are glad to see their work reprinted; I won’t lose sleep over the handful who prefer their work to remain in obscurity.

JKP: I realize I haven’t asked any questions yet about your new Gabriel Hunt series. How did that project come about, and how long do you intend to continue it?

CA: Seeing the [1981] movie Raiders of the Lost Ark was a transformative experience for me, back when I was 11 years old--I came out of the theater literally trembling, my heart racing. I’d never seen anything quite like it before; I’d grown up watching old Buster Crabbe serials and reading pulp adventure stories, but the difference between those and my first dose of Indiana Jones was like going from grape juice to rye. And pretty much from that moment I was determined to someday do something that would recapture that feeling, or provide it to someone else.

Then when the fourth Indiana Jones movie [Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull] came out [in 2008] and was so disappointing, I finally had a galvanizing moment. If [George] Lucas and [Steven] Spielberg weren’t giving the world a proper high adventure experience anymore, maybe I could. And Gabriel
Hunt was born.

I pitched it to Dorchester, and they agreed to do a run of six books. If those six do well, we’ll probably do more; if not, not. That’s the same way we started Hard Case Crime, with a six-book trial, and look at us now, with nearly 60 books under our belt. I don’t know that Gabriel will have quite the same legs (there’s more variety in Hard Case Crime, if only because you don’t have the same protagonist in every book), but I’m having a blast with it in the meantime.

JKP: You chose Glen Orbik to do all the Gabriel Hunt covers. Why not follow the tried-and-true HCC formula of using multiple artists?

CA: Well, we’re already not using the tried-and-true HCC formula of multiple (credited) authors, or of multiple leading men, or of a mix of reprints and original novels--using multiple cover artists is no more sacred a cow than any of those. And if you’re having the same character appear in all the books, it’s nice to have him painted by the same artist each time, for consistency. And, of course, Glen had a history of painting precisely the right sort of adventure images, which most of our painters do not.

That said, if Gabriel continues after Book 6, we may let some other painters have a crack at doing a cover.

JKP: What have you learned about publishing a line of books that you wish you’d known before you ever got started?

CA: Oh, there are a million lessons I’ve learned--it would be impossible to do them justice with anything less than a book-length answer. But perhaps the most important thing I learned was that if there’s something you love and are truly passionate about, the odds are good that there are other people out there, maybe thousands or even millions of them, who share your passion. And if you can find enough of those people, you’ve got the foundation for a
long-running series.

JKP: So, Charles, do you do other things than write noirish novels and keep the HCC gears going?

CA: Yep. Roughly half my waking hours are devoted to my role as a managing director at the D.E. Shaw Group, an investment and technology development firm. The other half I spend working on my various writing and publishing projects, including Hard Case Crime and its new sister series, The Adventures of Gabriel Hunt.

JKP: You read crime novels for professional reasons. But what do you read off the clock, for pleasure?

CA: Oh, I read crime novels for pleasure, too--if I didn’t, I can’t imagine why I’d ever have gone down this road. But crime novels are certainly not the only thing I read for pleasure. I’ve read everything Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote; everything Philip Roth ever wrote; everything Graham Greene ever wrote, including the non-crime novels. I like Malamud. Some of Chabon. Salinger. Henry Roth. Some of Paul Auster’s books are excellent. Some of Nabokov. Conrad. Thomas Hardy. Poetry: Keats and Blake and Wordsworth, Browning and Hopkins, Tennyson.

I’d mention Shakespeare, but hell, the list’s pretentious enough without him on it.

JKP: Finally, are you working on another novel of your own right now?

CA: Alas, no--not yet. I’ve been on a binge of editing the Gabriel Hunt novels, which is a much more intense editing task than the Hard Case Crime books; I’m revising all of them fairly extensively to ensure book-to-book continuity, consistency of voice, and so forth. There’s just one left--but after that I also have two more Hard Case Crime books to edit before I can properly sit down and start work on a book of my own. I’m guessing it’ll be close to year-end before I can. But that’s OK. I’ve got a half dozen ideas I’ve been toying with, and having an extra few months for them to germinate will make it easier for me to decide which one I should write next.

READ MORE:Interview with Charles Ardai,” by Cullen Gallagher
(Pulp Serenade).

10 comments:

P.M. said...

Incredible post. Thanks for conducting and sharing this interview. I am really looking forward to HCC's future line up and hope for their continued success.

AndyDecker said...

Great interview! Thanks.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Great interview. You handily managed to come up with some fun new questions and Charles with the answers. Thanks.

Paul Sinn said...

WOW!!!

David Thompson said...

Charles Ardai is simply a genius. That cover of LOSERS LIVE LONGER!! Wow.

Chris said...

Excellent! I'm new to HCC, and clearly have a lot of catching up to do. Thanks!

ARCHAVIST said...

Great interview but I've a complaint to make - I think I've strained my eyes looking for the penis on fade to blonde - does the guy mean the shape of the woman? Her outline is penis shaped - yeah that's what it is. Bloody disgraceful if you ask me.

Kristopher said...

Outstanding interview. You asked about everything I wanted to know about HCC - my favorite indie crime publisher. Think I might have to pick up one of those Gabriel Hunt novels, too.

Stephen Burridge said...

Siily thing to comment about, but I think the penis shape on the "Fade To Blonde" cover is the blankets between the woman's arms.

This was a fantastic, fascinating interview. Thanks!

Dan Storm said...

Great interview. I loved reading about the covers and the cover artists. That's what attracted me to these in the first place! Now if I could only rub a few more nickels together to afford an original Glen Orbik, I would be all set!! Are you out there Glen? Cut me a deal! I'm a poor art collector! I want one of your Hard Case Crime covers pleaseeeeeeeeeeee :)