Interview: Charles Ardai: Hard Case Publisher
by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
Gumshoe Review Interview ISBN/ITEM#: 0711CARDAI
Date: 31 October 2007 /
In the late 80s Charles Ardai was working in a venture capital firm that was looking to get into projects on the Internet. One of the folks he was working with was Jeff Bezos, who came up with an idea for an "everything store" where people could buy, review and sell a wide range of products…starting with books. He even asked Charles if he wanted to join him…because he knew he was into books…but Charles passed. Books…on the Internet...didn't sound like the killer idea he was looking for. As we know, Jeff did pretty well with Amazon.com. But Charles went on to found Juno.com, which did pretty well in its own right, and when he sold off his interest in it in 2001, he turned to an older love, mystery fiction to fill the void. Good thing for us that he did, as we've now got three dozen (and counting) neo-pulps we can savor, complete with classic covers, classic cases, and all sized to fit in your back pocket. I tracked down Charles in a bar named Mumbles on New York's lower east side, and made him talk…
Gumshoe: So you passed on getting in at Amazon's start with Jeff Bezos?
Charles Ardai: "The very first exposure Jeff had to buying and selling books on the Internet in 1994 was when I bought an Asimov science fiction anthology and I showed it to Jeff a few weeks later and I said I bought this on the Internet I was very proud that I think I was the first person to actually show [him] the process of Internet book shopping, but that was the entirety of my involvement with Amazon."
So anyway he started with that but I was looking for what else you could do on the Internet besides buy and sell books and retail products. For Juno we took the idea that some people do shopping on the Internet, some people sell stocks, some people surf porn, some even surf the web. The thing that they all do is send and receive e-mail. That was it, it's a subset of the activities of a superset of the audience.
So I said what if we gave people e-mail, just e-mail, that's it. We gave it away free because everyone needs it and once you own somebody's e-mail address it's very hard for them to leave you. We'll figure out what to do with them later. But if we own a screen that everyone went to look at everyday that's very powerful and that's what Juno came from.
Gumshoe: How did you first get involved in writing?
Charles: As a reader and a writer I started in SF. I discovered early on that I had no talent whatsoever for writing science fiction. When I was a teenager I wanted to write for magazines and I wanted an internship for a magazine. So I contacted the New Yorker and I contacted the Atlantic and I contacted Asimov's Science Fiction. Which of the three was willing to take a 16-year-old intern? Not the New Yorker.
I don't know if you remember Epyx, they were a game company back in the 80s. They made "Temple of the Apshai" that was their most famous game. They also made an Infocom style text adventure based on Robots of Dawn. And I used that as an excuse, I wrote a review of Robots of Dawn for a games magazine and I wanted to interview Isaac Asimov who I've never met. So I called up his book publisher and said I'm supposed to interview Isaac Asimov about his book the Robots of Dawn. Which was nicely true but ... you know. And they said we aren't allowed to give out that information. Of course. And I said no no no you don't understand he gave me his number but I can't read his handwriting. And they said oh, well here it is. So there I was feeling very clever and I called. Asimov was very polite, very nice more than you need to be to some 16 year old kid who calls on the phone. I asked him two or three questions about the game and he had to admit he knew nothing about it. At the end of the call I said I'm looking for an internship at a magazine do you know who I should call an Asimov's? And he said I've really got nothing to do with the magazine except that I write an editorial every month. The editor is Sheila Williams. So I called Sheila and told her Asimov told me to call you, and I got the internship. And I don't think she ever regretted it.
I started writing short stories but they were terrible, of course anything a 16-year-old writes is likely to be terrible. But the same publisher that publishes Asimov's also publishes Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. So on a whim I decided to try writing a story for a Ellery Queen, because they had a department called the Department of First Stories. This is where a lot of famous writers got their start. So I wrote a short story which I wrote in one day about a Jewish burglar who burgles a Jewish apartment on Yom Kippur.
Eleanor Sullivan, who was the editor, to my amazement bought it. It did not deserve to be bought. But what she did was a mammoth editing job on it. It was only about an eight page story and it came back covered in red ink. It was the most generous, kindest thing anyone has ever done. Because I learned a lot working on editing that story. Eleanor took me under her wing, she bought my first three stories. And edited them very thoroughly. And that was how I began writing mysteries. I'd always liked reading them but I never thought about writing them. But it turned out I could write them a lot easier than science fiction.
Gumshoe: In your first mystery novel in 2004, Little Girl Lost …
Charles: which was written under a fake name, an alias if you will...
Gumshoe: Some of the best stuff has been written by alias...
Charles: …certainly in the pulp era.
Gumshoe: I always liked A.A. Fair better than I like Erle Stanley Gardner.
Charles: There you go between the two I think A.A. Fair was the better writer. I once exchanged a pair of letters with Elmore Leonard, trying to get him to do a book for us, which will never happen. He is too close relationship with HarperCollins and we can't afford to pay him what he needs but I asked about these mystery writers that he grew up reading and he said he mostly didn't like them, he didn't like mystery writers, he didn't think of himself as a mystery writer he really didn't like Erle Stanley Gardner much, he liked A.A. Fair okay. A.A. Fair's books were better than Perry Mason.
Gumshoe: In reading Cracking the Hard-boiled Detective the author contends that Perry Mason is only barely detective fiction, and though I don't think he gets to it, A.A. Fair is classic genre.
Charles: Yes, even though Donald Lam is actually a lawyer, and once in a while there is a little bit of legal skulduggery, basically it's a hard-boiled detective story. With a very vulgar senior partner back in the office.
Gumshoe: I think it's like an alternate universe Nero Wolfe.
Charles: Exactly! And it's wonderful. Also Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake both started their careers writing soft-core pornography under pseudonyms, and once in a while they would sneak in a crime novel and the publisher didn't care if it had 200 pages and some sex scenes they were happy. So we've been printing several of Blocks early pseudo-anonymous novels that no one has seen in 30 or 40 years that have never been published under his real name. They were very good crime novels that he published through porn houses.
Gumshoe: So when did you start Hard Case Crime?
Charles: In 2001, I got together with my marketing guy, who had done all my graphic design, Max Phillips, who is also a novelist, and we got together at a bar. And we said, Juno's gone now, what are we going to do?
We both loved old paperback crime novels from the 40s and 50s. Just as physical artifacts,
Gumshoe: So now I know where the covers come from...
Charles: That's exactly right, so Max and I agreed we both love them, and we said why doesn't anyone publish those anymore? So I said well, we could do it. Of course we'd been drinking. And Max said, "I'll dummy up some covers to show you what it could look like. So not to be outdone, I said fine, if you're going to do the covers I'll put together a list of writers I know who could write for the series, and list of books that have been out of print for decades that we could reprint.
Two weeks later we got back together again and he showed me some covers, and they were great.
Gumshoe: Nobody I've talked to suspects that these are not old covers.
Charles: But every one is commissioned for us... covers are how I got started as a reader. My dad had all the old Brett Halliday books with Mike Shayne detective novels, and almost all of them had Robert McGinnis painted covers but I didn't read them, I was a little kid. They were all $.45 and had brown pages and they were falling apart, and it was like they were artifacts out of some fantasy world. So when I did start reading them, the plots were thrilling, they usually hooked you on page 1 with a dead body, and grabbed you and would let you go till the end.
Gumshoe: So do you read for the mystery, or the immersion into the world of the detective?
Charles: I don't read for the mystery, because I very often don't care who did it. And a lot of ones that are detective novels don't have a true whodunit element at all, just a bunch of criminals pulling off a heist, and you just want to be along for the ride.
The single biggest factor I find is the narrative voice. It's a pleasure to be in the company of someone who quips as wittily as Raymond Chandler, or was able to make me sweat as much as Cornell Wollrich, or who is able to make my pulse pound the way Mickey Spillane does at his best.
A great action scene, a great suspense scene, a great sex scene is a volatile, tumultuous, and exciting experience, and I enjoy that. Really cleverly written narrative is a pleasure to read. So we just reprinted a book, Kill Now, Pay Later by Robert Terrall, who never became famous under his real name although he wrote some books under it (he's better known as Robert Kyle or Jose Gonzalez.)
Gumshoe: The cover looks like an old Travis McGee cover.
Charles: It is a Robert McGinnis cover, and McGinnis did paint a bunch of the John D. MacDonald covers. And it's a brand-new painting, the man is 80 years old but he paints like he is 20. The book is very funny. It's laugh out loud funny, it's sexy, and it's just a pleasure to read. Do I care how the overly complex plot gets solved? Not in the slightest. It happens to be a reasonable solution, but who cares?
Gumshoe: In Cracking the Hard-Boiled Detective, Lewis Moore talks about the shift from "ratiocination" to "first-person adventure", what kind of reception did these books get when they first came out?
Charles: Though I can't remember the name of the first, first-person narrative mystery it was certainly very popular in the pulp magazines, when you get the iconic Spillane, whose first novel, I, The Jury, was the Da Vinci Code of its day, in the sense that it sold tens of millions of copies in a very short time. From the very first line of the title you've got a first-person narration. And many of the writers that followed used first-person narrative, Lawrence block endlessly uses first-person.
Gumshoe: Doesn't Conan Doyle actually use first-person?
Charles: That's true but it's a very distant first-person.
Gumshoe: Right, it is the voice of the sidekick, but by the time it becomes hard-boiled, it is the voice of the protagonist.
Charles: You've also got a different sort of companion relationship, at this point. Detectives have buddies; they've got a cop buddy or secretary, but the relationship isn't all that close and they're not confidantes. The story is about one man alone ... down these mean streets.
Gumshoe: How does your new book, the sequel to the Little Girl Lost, fit in…and by the way I love the cover.
Charles: It's Songs of Innocence by Richard Aleas, I said I wanted a woman with a blue teddy, and that's when I got. But I realized after I wrote the book that there are various characters in the book other than the narrator, and it's a first-person story, it's enormously solipsistic in the sense that there really aren't any other characters. There are other people who pop in and out of the narrative, but ultimately it takes place deep inside the mind and the perspective of the narrator. I don't say that is a good or a bad thing, but it's an interesting choice that the author made. I say that as if the author was someone else. But at this point I'm no longer the person who wrote this book so I can talk.
I couldn't tell you how it got written. One of the reasons I write under a fake name, though I also write under my own name, is it's very liberating. I wrote the first chapter of Little Girl Lost 10 years before I wrote the rest of it. And I could not figure out how to write the rest of it. Richard Aleas wrote it -- he figured out how to write the rest of it.
I tried to write under my own name, I would have been constantly looking over my shoulder because I have to live up to it, when my name is on it. But if I put his name on it, but I've got plausible deniability. After all, I'm saving my real name for the good stuff.
Gumshoe: What's the attraction of pulp fiction?
Charles: We like to retreat into the simpler world of brutal passions and cigarette girls and tough guys in fedoras.
Gumshoe: Do these characters believe in good and evil, or that anyone can be saved?
Charles: The protagonists generally do, though there are true cynics,. The Sydney Greenstreet characters are generally quite cynical. Out for themselves. Of course, anyone falsely accused of a crime, which is one subcategory, the fugitive novel, has to believe there's some way to clear their name. The detective in general has no connection to the event he's investigating, so he can have a neutral moral perspective, it doesn't touch him whether they live or die. I think Philip Marlowe doesn't generally invest himself too heavily in the client.
Gumshoe: But they'd like the scale to tip on the side of justice when it was all done.
Charles: That's true, but they don't have a personal stake in the particulars of how that happens.
Gumshoe: The PI has been compared to a number of other figures, from gunslingers to knights, though I think there are some interesting parallels with the shaman. Both go into the underworld to intercede on behalf of a member of their "tribe" who has been lured into deals through temptation. And for both, it's a never ending struggle.
Charles: That's worth an essay in itself. Of course the gunslinger may get to clean up the town and earn the rewards, or move on, but the PI has to stay there and never really win.. It's the difference between the 1890s and the 1950s. It's the difference between pre and post Hiroshima, pre and post Auschwitz, pre and post the great depression, the Victorian belief in the order of all things.
You start to see it eroding in Tennyson, when he wrote "there is more faith in honest doubt, than half the creeds I know". And this is the point at which doubt creeps in, and the notion that things work they way they "ought" starts to go away.
Charles: The real change in the genre is life. It's rare to see a book today less than 250 pages long, or about 100,000 words. In the old days books were very often 50,000 words. I know this sounds perverse, but I've found there are stories you can tell in 50,000 words that you cannot tell at twice the length. Because to fill twice the length you get into the character's back story, their childhood, their motivations, and pad things out.
Gumshoe: And back story, in the noir PI genre, is something that was only filled in lightly and usually over a series of stories. Nothing was allowed to slow the story down.
Charles: Exactly, it was all about velocity. Which is not to say the new stuff is not very good, but it's a different experience. I'm not saying I wish it would go away, but I was sorry there weren't others publishers doing this; the short tighter written stories.
Gumshoe: It's fun to be able to enjoy reading it without having to invest a month of nights in the project.
Charles: Right, one night, two nights, and you are done. The reading equivalent of going to the movies, a good night's entertainment.
Gumshoe: Space of course as a reviewer...
Charles: As a reviewer you want to get through books. I still do reviews once in awhile, and I just wrote a review for New York Observer of a biography of Chandler called The Long Embrace. Its coming out in October from Pantheon, the Random House imprint, and it's not a good biography. One of the things that annoyed me about it, which I did not comment on in the review. Is that it is 335 pages long, which would be okay if the author discovered something new about Chandler. But she hasn't, so it's 335 pages of the same old stuff about Chandler. Plus some speculation that he was gay; it wasn't worth the pages.
Gumshoe: I blame computers.
Gumshoe: Computers make it easy to write long, because you know, you can go back and tighten things up later. But even though you know it would be better writing to do so. It's easy to become attached to the words and reluctant to delete them. Editors on the other hand are looking for more words to make the books look more substantial. So the traditional check has been largely removed.
What I find so interesting is that if you do go back and remove 30% in some sense. It's still there, just not explicitly.
Charles: You're always surprised by how well things hold together in the absence of things you've taken out. We'll published our first female author next year, and it's sort of sad that it took us four years to publish a female author, but anyway Christa Faust is a very talented writer, and she's written a book called, Money Shot set in the adult film industry. Excellent book, but there is a scene about three quarters of the way through the book that really wasn't needed. And I told her and she agreed and we took it out. And sure enough, when you read the book, you don't miss it at all. It's a paragraph now.
Whenever you see a scene that can come out, unless it's hilarious or really well-written, it ought to come out. So, we do actively edit.
Gumshoe: So your books are thinner, and they're priced at the lower end of the paperback spectrum, but they may have more editorial work involved than bigger books. The bottom line is that I'm grateful you've brought the form factor back. Trade paperbacks are very popular with publishers because they can charge more, but you can't put them in your back pocket.
Charles: Which was very much a consideration on our part. When we set out to do the line, we met with basically every publisher in New York, and some of them had no interest at all, but some wanted to do it as a trade paperback, because it's really for a cult aficionado audience and that's the way to reach that audience.
The answer I gave them was, "We're not going to do it in that format, because that format didn't exist in 1947 and 1954, and we're reproducing a certain physical shape. We're not going to do it in a format that didn't exist at that time." We didn't want to do an homage to the thing, we wanted to do the thing itself.
Gumshoe: So how have you done?
Charles: Well, we're still here after four years. We started in 2004, and we did six books In '05 we did nine, and in '06 we did twelve. This year we're doing eleven because we skipped January to give ourselves some holiday. But we'll be back to 12 in 2008.
So the mere fact that we survived this long is a testimony that we're successful. It makes a very, very modest amount of money. You could count the number of thousands of dollars of profit on the fingers of one hand…with no thumb. But that's fine. We didn't get into this to make a mint.
Gumshoe: Tell me about it. We do it mostly for the fun too. Mostly. Of course, it's much harder for you because you're in real paper, with real print costs, where Gumshoe Review just has to cover the cost of some webspace servers.
Charles: We've got a contract with our publishing partner Dorchester, who handles our printing and distribution, through book number fifty. I have to sit down and write book number fifty, because I've saved it for myself. It will come out at the end of 2008, and after that, the jury is still out as to whether or not we'll do more.
There are some writers I haven't gotten around to yet that I'd really love to get. Harlan Ellison is a big fan of our books, and we would love to do a Harlan Ellison book.
Either way, I get to look at a shelf and, at this point, it's thirty six books we've published, and I'm proud of them all, though they're not all equally good. Some are great, some are not so great, but I'm proud of them all, and maybe twenty or thirty years from now someone will collect all our books the way I collect the old pulps today. And that feels good. I'm proud of what we've done.