A crime line of passion

Special to The Times

SAY you started an Internet company back in 1995 that really took off. Then you sold it and found yourself floating in enough dough to fulfill your heart's desire. What would you do?

Charles Ardai, founder of Juno Online Services Inc., started a publishing company. Not some online media venture, mind you, but about the most old-school throwback you could imagine. With partner Max Phillips, Ardai became a publisher of paperback crime novels, the kind with staccato prose and lurid covers depicting scantily clad women that so captivated the American imagination in the 1950s and '60s.

Launched in 2004, Hard Case Crime now releases a book each month, a carefully calibrated mix of old classics and new blood that is gaining its own cult readership. It's an audience that appreciates the total aesthetic surrounding hard-boiled crime novels, including the eye-catching cover art. To capture the retro feel they craved, Ardai and Phillips tracked down artists such as Robert McGinnis, who drew some of the genre's Golden Age covers, and hired them to paint some new Hard Case jackets.

Their biggest coup came last year when Stephen King, a longtime fan of pulp novels, offered to write a book for Hard Case called "The Colorado Kid." Hard Case did a printing of 1 million copies, and though they don't disclose sales figures, the book made the New York Times bestseller list. Since then, a number of Hard Case titles have also been optioned for film, and the company even turned a small profit last year, Ardai said, though not enough of one to recoup all its expenses.

Ardai "has a really great eye in picking quality original work and neglected older books that should be back in print," said Sarah Weinman, an industry observer who writes the influential crime book blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.

Although Ardai's business background certainly helps, it was his and Phillips' consuming passion for the pulps that drove everything.

"We loved their philosophy: providing maximal entertainment with minimal means and at a minimal price," said Phillips.. Those old "paperback original" books, he said, "were highly efficient devices for delivering a good time. We liked that spirit and wanted both to celebrate it and to rekindle it."

Ardai, who edits, copy-edits and proofs every book with a "Felix Ungerish obsession" about word spacing, says he was smitten by dime novels growing up in New York, where he'd accompany his parents to garage sales to find them. "I was taken with the irresistible physical form of the book itself, how it fit into a jeans pocket, how you could read it with one thumb bending the cover back while you ate a hot dog," he said. "They felt totally different from the books you read in school. They were stripped down and spare, with powerful, gut-wrenching prose. And they were sexy, which when you're 16, is appealing too."

Ardai cites author Lawrence Block as one of his earliest muses, praising his "great plotting and wonderful colloquial style like people actually talk." In homage, the first book Hard Case published, in fall 2004, was Block's long out-of-print classic "Grifter's Game," which came out in 1961 as "Mona."

In high school, Ardai indulged his love of a different genre with an unpaid internship at Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, where the elderly author took Ardai under his wing. When Ardai majored in English at Columbia University, his mother despaired he would ever make a living.

But after college Ardai landed a coveted job as an investment banker at the D.E. Shaw group. In 1994, Ardai dreamed up what became the Internet provider Juno. When Juno was sold in 2001, Ardai and Phillips, the company's art director, met at the Blue Bar of the Algonquin Hotel in New York and talked about what they wanted to do next.

Once they discovered their shared passion for midcentury pulp and sorrow at the genre's demise, it was a short hop to seeing a market opportunity. They decided to start their own firm, running the editorial and artistic side and finding a publisher to print and distribute the line. That led them to Dorchester Publishing in New York, one of the few mass market firms that remains independently owned

"It was a nice fit because no one was doing anything in mass market, and there's quite an audience for these books," said Tim DeYoung, a senior vice president at Dorchester.

Of course, plenty of publishers bring out crime novels in paperback. But few do hard-boiled in such a branded and stylized way as Hard Case.

"People are attracted by the covers, that's the first thing that hits their eye," said Bobby McCue, the manager of the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood. He keeps Hard Case books in their own little display case, "an old antiquated paperback stand," he said, and they sell slowly but steadily.

Ardai also started a book club, with about 3,000 subscribers who receive each new Hard Case release. As he resurrects authors such as Richard Prather and Erle Stanley Gardner (who wrote mysteries as well as westerns), he also introduces newer authors like Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, whose co-written "Bust" recently got a rave in Entertainment Weekly.

Except for Stephen King's book, print runs tend to be relatively modest, as are the advances, but authors don't seem to care.

"Hard Case has given Ken and me a new outlet for our writing," Starr said. "We can write very dark, pulpy, paperback original novels

Hard Case also publishes crime novels by authors well known in other fields. Ardai reprinted an early 1980s novel by New York journalist Pete Hamill called "The Guns of Heaven," in which a group of Irish terrorists conspire to blow up the Plaza Hotel in New York, and "Straight Cut" by Madison Smartt Bell, whose more literary works have been finalists for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner prize.

For Bell, who points out that Dostoevsky was a crime novelist, the wall between high and low fiction is artificial. "The two need to fertilize each other.... Hard Case is a cool concept -- I think their retro design and presentation is delicious ... and I think they have a good chance to find a whole new audience for 'Straight Cut.' "

But retro is a razor that cuts both ways. "We specifically don't buy any books that feel like they're trying to do Golden Age," Ardai said. "Anything campy or spoofy, we pass on, even if it's well done. It's very important for us to do books that feel fresh and new and cutting-edge, even if they were written 50 years ago."

That leads Ardai to his own sleuthing, tracking down the heirs and executors of long-dead authors to reprint "jaw-droppingly good" books like "The Vengeful Virgin" by Gil Brewer. Author David Dodge is most famous for "To Catch a Thief," but Ardai published his posthumous novel, "The Last Match," after a UC Berkeley librarian found an unpublished manuscript among his papers, typed it into the computer and sent it to Hard Case.

Ardai cites Allan Guthrie as a good example of a modern Hard Case author doing interesting things in the hard-boiled tradition. Guthrie's "Kiss Her Goodbye," set in Edinburgh, Scotland, was a finalist for the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award in mystery fiction. Guthrie has gone on to a three-book deal with Harcourt, but that's fine with Ardai, who is happy to be the incubator.

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A career booster

INDEED, Hard Case is hardly a vanity press, even if it publishes novels by its founders. Ardai's "Little Girl Lost" (written under the name Richard Aleas) was a finalist for the Edgar and Shamus awards, and Phillips' first thriller, "Fade to Blonde" ("She was a little taste of heaven and a one-way ticket to hell"), collected a Shamus. (Like Ardai, Phillips is also a Renaissance man, who sculpts, writes poetry and publishes literary novels, including a fictionalized biography of Alma Mahler.) Other Hard Case winners are Domenic Stansberry's "Confession," which won an Edgar.

Artists for the Hard Case line are also enthralled at the resurrection of their publishing careers.

"I was not painting in the field at the time that Charles called me," said McGinnis, an artist in his late 70s who did thousands of book covers and movie work back in the day, including the original James Bond movie posters with Sean Connery and the iconic Audrey Hepburn image with a cigarette holder for "Breakfast at Tiffany's." McGinnis, who paints mainly for galleries now, was delighted to do book covers again.

But the artist, known for his sultry female portraits, was surprised when Hard Case asked him to add a few clothes to the cover he did for "Little Girl Lost," which initially featured a woman who was naked except for a wispy lace garment on one arm.

"It's ironic," said Ardai. "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 risque wouldn't fly with at least some retailers."

These days, Ardai toggles between running Hard Case and part-time work as a D.E. Shaw managing director, where he oversees biotech ventures -- he never quit his day job.

Hard Case "is a labor of love," he said. "We have no prospect of making a large number of pennies ever. If I'm making the world a better place by showcasing new authors, that's great. I'd rather invest my money in this than a sports car."

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Hamilton writes the edgy Eve Diamond crime series and loiters at www.denisehamilton.com.

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