Hard Case Crime: Atavism as a Labor of Love
Charles Ardai fancies himself as something of an atavist. Indeed, as the editor of Hard Case Crime, the pulp enthusiast makes his living recreating relics—seedy, dissolute genre fiction steeped in mystery, sex, and violence.
Featuring out-of-print novels as well as new entries by a variety of authors, the books are served with the sort of aesthetical accouterments that for nearly a century have provided an unapologetic escape from the humdrum of a day in the office.
To look at a Hard Case Crime entry is to travel back to the era of newsstand dime novels, when the creation of enticing covers was a bona fide art form, and when a scantily clad woman or an ominously pointed gun could clue readers in to everything they might expect from the stories captured within.
As Ardai put it to inReads: “The covers of our books are not like an advertising campaign for a show – they’re the show’s first act.”
inReads recently spoke with the author/editor about what it’s like to run the Hard Case Crime series in an era of e-readers and tablet computers, as well as what it takes to secure such a comprehensive roster of celebrated genre writers.
inReads: What I find interesting about the Hard Case Crime series is the role the physical product plays in the overall tenor of the series. The books look great on the shelf, and the feeling you get while reading them is authentically nostalgic. Can you give me a general sense of some of the feedback readers have given you in regards to your covers?
Charles Ardai: We’ve had some readers tell us that they buy the books and put them straight into protective Mylar bags, in which case the only part they really get to enjoy is the covers. We’ve also had numerous readers ask us if we’d make posters or postcards or calendars or t-shirts featuring the cover art. When we announced that we’d be publishing some new books in hardcover and some in the larger, more modern ‘trade’ paperback size, we got some complaints from readers who felt any move away from the classical ‘pocket book’ dimensions was a betrayal. I imagine some publishers might be concerned by customers who focus this much attention on the covers of their books rather than on the stories unfolding between them, or on other aspects of the books’ form and format–but I’m not. For me, it’s a sign that we’ve succeeded at our primary aim, which was to recreate and celebrate a specific physical artifact, the mid-century paperback crime novel.
That means telling a certain kind of story–and the awards we’ve won testify that we haven’t done too shabbily at that either–but it also means presenting those stories in a particular visual manner. Presentation matters. It has an impact on the emotional impact of our books, the sense of charm and nostalgia they evoke, the extent to which they make your heart beat faster and your palms sweat before you even pick them up and take them home. That’s the role that covers like ours used to play back in the pulp era, when they clamored for your attention from newsstands and wire racks in drugstores, and it’s the role they play now.
inReads: At a time when so many companies are pushing genre fiction exclusively onto various e-readers, the idea of a book that looks good on the bookshelf has become at least mildly out of vogue (from the publisher end). What it is like to run a cutting-edge enterprise that is somewhat radical in its pulp tradition? In essence your books are progressive in that they are wholly anachronistic. The incongruity there has got to be fun to work with.
Ardai: Actually, I think publishers are the sort of people who care a great deal about how books look on bookshelves, and it’s readers for whom it has become out of vogue to think of books as physical objects. Publishers tend to be atavists–I know I am. Readers tend to be like anyone else in the general population, meaning that they like modern gadgets and conveniences and modernity in general. But publishers became publishers because they love books, and in private many of us lament the coming dominance of e-readers, which we see as both inevitable and unfortunate. The difference between Hard Case Crime and other publishers is that we don’t feel compelled to do something about it. If you’re a big business and need to sell millions of books a year in order to stay in business, you have to change with the times and cater to the largest mass audience. But we’re not. We’re a small labor-of-love operation, catering to the tastes of atavists like ourselves, and we have the luxury of tailoring a special product to those specialized tastes.
inReads: As an editor, how sad would you be to see the age of the physical bookshelf come to a close? Books like your HCC line offer the sort of decorative allurement that seems to be at least partially in danger—much the same way great album art isn’t nearly displayable today as it was in the days of LPs.
Ardai: I’d be very sad. As the owner of many very full bookshelves in a not very large Manhattan apartment, I understand the appeal of a single book-sized device that can hold thousands of titles, leaving wall space free for photographs or mirrors or, you know, fur-padded shackles or what have you; but books are something special, and I’ll be very sorry to see them go. I know I’m like a centenarian singing the praises of wax cylinders over LPs, but so be it. Books have outlasted pretty much every other trend in the history of human civilization, and I’ll be sorry indeed to see them go.
inReads: On the subject of genre fiction, your roster of authors is beyond comprehensive. You have at least one novel from just about every major crime writer from the 20th century and the 21st for that matter. How do you go about securing the rights to these books? What goes into obtaining rights to, say, a Donald Westlake novel?
Ardai: The process of securing rights varies from author to author. The first big question is whether the author is alive or dead. Several of our authors who are dead now were alive when we first went looking for the rights to their books – Ed McBain, Richard Prather, John Lange, Donald Westlake – so I could just locate them and contact them directly. In Westlake’s case, we’d published several books by his long-time friend Lawrence Block, and Larry introduced us to him. I think Don then introduced us to McBain. And so on. For the books by long-gone (and often long-forgotten) authors, some detective work can be necessary. It took us years to locate the heirs of Steve Fisher, for instance, or Day Keene. Keene himself had died in the 1960s, and since then his wife had died, his son had died, his agent had died…who was left? Well, I found out that “Day Keene” was a pseudonym and the man’s real name had been Gunnar Hjerdstedt, so I tracked down every person in America named “Hjerdstedt” and called them, asking if they might have any useful leads. Eventually we found Keene’s son’s widow. Thank goodness his real name hadn’t been “Smith.”
inReads: As a fan of the genre, do you take pleasure in turning new audiences on to some of the great cult writers they might not have heard about?
Ardai: Absolutely. It takes no great skill to excite readers about a new book by Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling–they know who these authors are and eagerly await each new title they release. Getting people excited about a book by David Dodge or Cornell Woolrich or Erle Stanley Gardner these days is a bit harder. But it’s possible. You say, “This is the guy who wrote To Catch a Thief or Rear Window, or who created Perry Mason, and people stop what they’re doing and begin to pay attention. You say, “You’ve never heard of George Axelrod, but he wrote a movie called The Seven-Year Itch, and even if you’ve never seen the movie, I guarantee you know at least one scene from it, the one where Marilyn Monroe stands over a subway grate in a billowing white dress.” “Yes,” they say, “I know that scene.” “Well, this novel, Blackmailer, is written by the same fellow who wrote that movie, and the main character is the same guy who falls in love with Marilyn in the movie!” “Really?” they say. “Hmm. Maybe I’ll give the book a try.” And you’ve got one more convert to the cause. There’s nothing I find more fulfilling than creating a new generation of readers who know the names Wade Miller and Charles Williams and Gil Brewer, and who are eager to read more books by them. And I think the authors would be tickled as hell to know that half a century after their passing their words are still causing readers to gasp and laugh and cry and exult, and to plunk down cash on the bookstore counter, eager for more.
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Elsewhere inReads: The loss of cover art is one of four limitations suggested for e-readers.