A Crime Culture Compendium

This website is a thorough collection of all aspects of popular Crime Culture, with articles, lists and links for fiction, film, and true crime, well-organized and presented with a serious, almost academic approach. Articles include "Black Protest in the Mid-Century American Crime Novel" and "Fatal Women in the Hard-Boiled Fifties" From the Introduction to the Era of American Paperback Originals: "The great boom in paperback publishing, however, was initiated by the novels of Mickey Spillane. Needing a thousand dollars for the materials to build his own house, Spillane wrote I, THE JURY in 1947. The novel only sold about seven thousand copies in hardcover but, as a Signet paperback, sold over two million copies in two years, an achievement that 'electrified and inspired the softcover book industry.'" (Lee Server, Over My Dead Body).

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Back with a BANG!

Hard Case Crime imprint revives the pulp mystery novel with true grit and authenticity
From World War II through the 1960s, paperback crime novels were the fastest-selling category in book publishing. Called “pulp” novels after the pulp magazines that flourished in the '30s and '40s and gave many crime authors their start, they were written fast (fast, I tell ya, fast as the women that inhabited the racy stories), with jaw-dropping prose that grabbed you by the collar with the first sentence and held you until the last page. And readers read ‘em fast, snapping up the endless stream of books by well-known authors like Erle Stanley Gardner and Mickey Spillane, and promising young writers like Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, and Ed McBain. Even today, Block, Leonard, and McBain make the hardcover bestseller list — but the pulp novels were cheap, mass-produced paperbacks that fit into a G.I.’s pack or the back pocket of a teenager’s jeans.

The culturally-awakening reading public embraced the concept, and print-runs grew large, (Gold Medal typically printed 400,000 copies of a book), and at a penny a word, authors could make a great living, especially those knocking one out every couple of months. By 1946 there were over 350 pulp crime titles in print, their striking covers and gripping stories pushing the limits of adult content. During the next two decades, some 20,000 more were released, as the cover paintings got bolder and the writing got hotter (hotter than the lead out of a point-blank .38). Like most trends, this one, too, eventually faded. No one had published anything like them in years. Until now…

Hard Case Crime is a new imprint dedicated to “reviving the vigor and excitement, the suspense and thrills of the golden age of paperback crime novels.” By bringing back into print some of the best work of the pulp era by the likes of Block and Gardner, and introducing new writers and artists that are inspired by and dedicated to preserving the genre, Hard Case Crime novels bring back the look, feel, and excitement of the hardboiled crime pulps in affordable, mass-market editions.

Hard Case Crime was created by Charles Ardai and Max Phillips, both pulp fans who tired of having to get their crime fiction fix at yard sales and Internet auctions. “We longed for the days of imprints such as Gold Medal and Popular Library,” says Ardai. “Nobody was publishing books like that any more: lean, gripping stories with lusciously painted covers that sold for two bits in a drugstore rack. We regretted it both as readers and as writers.”

It turns out the pair not only read the pulps voraciously, but they wanted to write and publish crime novels of their own. They had spent the past seven years working on Ardai’s brainchild, Juno, the billion-dollar behemoth that was now merging with its chief competitor. Phillips had been the art director; Ardai the CEO. Now, they finally had some time on their hands, and with the help of some plum wine and sake at a Manhattan sushi shop, they made a decision.

“We’d just consumed our own body weight in miscellaneous Japanese delicacies and were in a pleasantly suggestible state of mind,” remembers Ardai. “A more sensible pair might have come up with ‘Get some dessert’ or ‘Go home and get some sleep.’ Our teeming, overly ambitious brains came up with, ‘Start a paperback publishing imprint.’

Within a couple of weeks they’d listed both out-of-print classics that needed to be revived, and working authors that might be interested in publishing through their imprint. And, they had their own book concepts, complete with titles, plot outlines, and mock-up covers. Within a few months, both of their books were finished. Unfortunately, it took another two years to find a publisher willing to put the books out in the form they wanted. In September 2004, Hard Case Crime was launched, a collaboration between Ardai’s Winterfall LLC and the venerable Dorchester Publishing, the oldest independent mass market publisher in the country. It was a match made in heaven.

“We were looking for a partner that not only was interested in publishing our books, but shared our vision of reviving the specific look and feel of the great pulp novels of yore. Some publishers we met with wanted to publish omnibus editions, while others wanted us to make trade paperbacks with a $12-17 price point.”

“When we found Dorchester, we knew immediately that the fit was ideal. As the true heirs to the great pulp houses, they are committed to the mass market format, and distribute their books not only to bookstores, but also traditional mass-market venues such as drugstores, truck stops, and military PXs. The one thing they didn't have is what we could bring them: expertise in the mystery category. They had successful lines in romance, westerns, horror, and some other genres -- but nothing in mystery or crime fiction. The fit was a natural.”

The Hard Case Crime series debuted with Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block and Fade to Blonde by Max Phillips (both retailing at $6.99 each). Ardai’s decision to reprint the classic by Block, originally released 1961 as Mona, is his homage to the author who got him hooked on pulp mysteries. Hard Case’s third release, Little Girl Lost — written by Ardai himself under his pseudonym, Richard Aleas — is a book he’d begun years earlier and set aside. The plot revolves around a man who discovers his high school girlfriend –the one he’d thought would become a successful doctor – has been murdered while working as a stripper. Ardai hadn’t known how to finish the novel until he went through his collection of old paperbacks and spent days rereading them. “Suddenly something started flowing. I realized I knew who’d killed the girlfriend, and why, and I couldn’t get to the keyboard fast enough. Those 60 days I spent writing Little Girl Lost were among the most exciting and satisfying I’ve ever had.”

Ardai was on a roll. His book cover would be illustrated by legendary Robert McGinnis, creator of the posters for the original Sean Connery James Bond movies. “He was excited about our project as soon as I described it to him and he signed on with great enthusiasm,” says Ardai. “His work is as good now as it ever was, and having him creating cover paintings for our line feels like a benediction of sorts, a bridge between the original pulp era and our revival. Bob McGinnis is not only a legend in the field and a virtuoso in terms of his painting skills, but he's also a true gentleman.”

Hard Case is also highlighting the work of a new generation of artists following the tradition of McGinnis and other great painters such as Robert Maguire, Barye Phillips, and Rudolph Belarski. Not only did these young artists grow up admiring the art of the pulp era and relish the chance to try their hand at it, but they have also proven their ability to work in the vivid and dramatic style that made pulp paperbacks so memorable.

Hard Case is scheduled to publish nine books in 2005, increasing to a schedule of one title per month in 2006. Slated for March release: Home Is the Sailor by 1950s pulp master Day Keene, and Kiss Her Goodbye, an original novel set on the mean streets of Edinburgh, by the rising young Scottish noir stylist Allan Guthrie.

But the real headline news in the 2005 line-up is Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid, to be published in October. This is King’s initial foray into the classic pocket-sized mass-market paperback format. (The book will also be available in audiobook and e-book editions from Simon & Schuster, publisher of King’s work since 1998.)

  “Steve is an extraordinary writer, and as much a fan of classic paperback crime fiction as we are,” says Ardai. “We originally contacted him to see if he’d be willing to write a blurb for our line, and he decided that what he really wanted to do was write a book for us instead. It was both shocking and exciting when we heard back from him, since you never dare hope for an outcome like this. On the other hand, if you look back over his career, you'll see that Steve has made a habit of supporting with great generosity the work of artists he admires, and he's second to none in his love of classic pulp crime novels. We’re thrilled that he wanted to be part of Hard Case Crime and we’re very excited to get to introduce the world to the baffling mystery of The Colorado Kid.”

“This is an exciting line of books,” Stephen King commented, “and I'm delighted to be a part of it. Hard Case Crime presents good, clean, bare-knuckled storytelling, and even though The Colorado Kid is probably more bleu than outright noir, I think it has some of those old-fashioned kick-ass story-telling virtues. It ought to; this is where I started out, and I'm pleased to be back.”  

Since its debut in 2004, Hard Case Crime has been the subject of enthusiastic coverage by a wide range of publications including The New York Times, USA Today, Vanity Fair, and Playboy, who praised Hard Case Crime’s “lost masterpieces,” writing “They put to shame the work of modern mystery writers whose plots rely on cell phones and terrorists.” The Philadelphia City Paper wrote, “Tired of overblown, doorstop-sized thrillers…? You’ve come to the right place. Hard Case novels are as spare and as honest as a sock in the jaw.”  

Could things get any better for Ardai? Only this:

“The other day, I walked into the big Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue and saw six Hard Case Crime books staring out at me from the ‘new releases’ tower at the front of the store, with all the visual impact books like this must have had in the old days. And right in the middle there was Little Girl Lost, featuring the cover painting by the legendary Robert McGinnis.”

Pow! (It hit him like a wet fist on a cold, rainy night.) But it must have felt good, really good.