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A little over twenty years ago, Charles Ardai launched Hard Case crime with with Max Phillips. Along with publishing their own work, hard Case Case republished post war paperback masters like Daye Keene and Charles Williams as well as introducing us to new hard boiled voices like Irish madman Allan Guthrie and the phenomenal Christa Faust, and utilizing it with covers the evocative style in . It has now grown into a an influential publisher, moving into comic books and and other media, help launch carers, giving notice to forgotten writers, and fanning the flames of an American literary from. To celebrate, Hard Case released Death Comes Too Late, a collection of Charles Ardai's short work. He was kind enough to talk about the book and his years shepherding Hard Case Crime.

SCOTT MONTGOMERY: How does it feel looking back at the twenty years since you started Hard Case?


CHARLES ARDAI: It feels very strange. Max and I didn’t plan for this thing to go for 20 years – we thought we’d publish half a dozen books over the course of one year and that would be it. Max would write one, I’d write one; we’d reprint some favorite authors like Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake; we’d wind up with 6 or maybe 8 or 10 cool books on our shelf and we’d be proud of them, but no one would be clamoring for more. But that’s not what happened. As soon as we brought out our first few titles, people started clamoring. Newspapers and magazines ran pictures of our covers. Bookstores started shelving them together, face out. It was incredibly gratifying. And then Stephen King decided he wanted to get in on the fun and wrote THE COLORADO KID for us – our lucky 13th book – and there was no stopping the train after that.


S.M.: What are some of the cool things you've gotten to do or experience through Hard Case?


C.A.: The coolest thing for me is getting to work with many of the authors and artists whose work inspired me when I was starting out, people like Lawrence Block and Stephen King and Brian De Palma and Joyce Carol Oates. And I’m acutely conscious that if we’d started Hard Case Crime just a few years later, a lot of those opportunities would have been lost. I am so grateful that I got to know Ed McBain and Don Westlake and Richard Prather and Mickey Spillane and Harlan Ellison, that I could talk with them, work with them, ask them questions about their books and why they made some of the choices they made; now they are all gone. Even guys like Michael Crichton and the wonderful painter Glen Orbik – no one expected to lose them so young, but we did, and I am so grateful to have gotten to know them and work with them, to make some books we all loved.


It has also been insanely cool to unearth long-lost or never-before-seen work by authors I never dreamed I’d get to read a new book by again: James M. Cain, Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, Samuel Fuller. What a treat. What an honor.


S.M.: One of Hard Case's first books was Lawrence Block's Grifter's Game and he has been the author you reprinted the most as well as publishing a new book of his. What makes him perfect for Hard Case?


C.A..: Larry Block has been my favorite living crime writer (and one of my all-time favorite authors of nonfiction too!) since I first discovered his books when I was in high school. He’s just such a brilliant writer, and he makes it look so effortless, like the words just spill out of him in that engaging, propulsive way that makes it impossible to stop reading. The chance to work with him was one of the big reasons I wanted to create Hard Case Crime in the first place, and in fact his novel GRIFTER’S GAME was our very first book. And as you say there have been many since. (He and Max Allan Collins are, I think, neck and neck in terms of “most reprinted.”)


Larry got his start writing pulp fiction and paperback originals in exactly the right period for us, and he did it prolifically and very well, so his early books are a sort of master class in how to write our sort of book: great plot hooks, crackling dialogue, velocity, brevity. Sex. Violence. Grim, cynical endings. They’re practically the Platonic ideal of a Hard Case Crime book.


S.M.: What do you enjoy about hard boiled fiction?


C..A..: It feels true. It always had for me. Classic, “golden age” novels of detection can be quite a lot of fun as puzzles or comedies of manners, but they don’t feel like they take place in the real world – there’s something theatrical about them. But the hardboiled movement (which, to be fair, can be every bit as stylized as Philo Vance or Ellery Queen in its own way) felt like it was attempting to describe a world more like the one real people actually inhabit – at least the sort of people I knew, growing up in the crime-ridden New York City of the 1970s. People get mugged or overdose on drugs; stores and banks and warehouses get robbed; people buy and sell sex; dirty cops take bribes and so do dirty politicians. Books where those sorts of things happen resonate for me, as does the cynical, world-weary attitude toward it all that hardboiled protagonists often have. Then, too, the emergence of “noir” fiction in the shadows of World War II, the dark view of life as too often purposeless, cruel, indifferent to the suffering of good people or the undeserved victories of bad ones…that resonates for me too, as a natural pessimist and the child of Holocaust survivors. Most of my family was murdered before I was born. My parents lived through hell and it’s only blind chance that I’m here at all. Noir fiction is all about the person clinging by his fingernails at the edge of the abyss. Those are stories I find compelling to read and worth telling.


S.M.: Is there an author or book you'd still like to get?


C.A.: Oh, yes. The ones that got away! Early in his career, Martin Cruz Smith penned half a dozen pseudonymous potboilers about a secret agent for the Vatican, and I wanted to reprint the best of them. We got very close – his agent told me Smith had agreed – but then mysteriously the contract never got signed, and then the agent passed away, and Smith has never responded to me once since. I don’t know what caused his change of heart, but I think it’s a great shame that those books remain out of print.


Early on I reached out to Alan Furst, who has won acclaim for his very serious spy thrillers, but whose first novel, which got nominated for an Edgar Award, was a zany romp about a pot dealer. I love the book and I think he should be proud of it and happy to see it brought back in print – but he respectfully disagreed. So that book languishes in obscurity.


Authors? So many. Joe Hill and I have talked about doing a book together, Dean Koontz, Megan Abbott – maybe one day. I’ve corresponded with Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling – I’d love to see what they’d come up with if they decided to try their hand at a down-and-dirty 50,000-word paperback original!


S.M.: One thing connected to Hard Case is the retro style book covers. What do you look for in your artists?


We look first for artists who work in traditional media: oils on canvas, egg tempera, brushes and pigment, the old-fashioned technique. (Which is not to say we’ve never let an artist work digitally. But it’s not what we look for.) Then the next thing is the sort of fleshy, painterly realism that you used to see on paperback covers back in the day, in the works of masters like James Avati and James Bama, Robert Maguire and Robert McGinnis. (And what a privilege it has been to work with the great Robert McGinnis, now 98, who was painting until age 95 or so and created dozens of gorgeous covers for us!) Finally, we look for someone who has an illustrator’s sensibility. There are masterful portrait painters who can capture every nuance of a human face, but we need more than that – our covers have to have the element of crime to them, menace, suspense, action, a threat, danger; they have to tell a story and hook the reader, draw him in, the way old pulp magazine covers did back in the day. It’s a rare combination of skills to find. We’re lucky to have gotten to work with some of the finest illustrators out there.


S.M.: You just put out your short story collection Death Comes Too Late. What do you like about writing in that format?


C.A.:I was a short story writer before I became a novelist; most writers are. You start in the short form the same way a juggler starts with two balls before graduating to three, four, five. You learn to work on a smaller canvas, with fewer moving pieces. But the truth is, I love short stories. A great short story can give pleasures that even a great novel can’t. (And vice versa, of course.) A story like “The Lottery” or “A Sound of Thunder” or “The Exiles Club” would not be better if it were 300 pages rather than 30. And the bite-sized nature of a short story also makes them accessible for readers who don’t have the habit of reading long. If I have an idea for a story, I can put it down on paper in a matter of days, not months or years. There are many good things about short stories. Alas, you can’t make a living writing them, and most short stories vanish roughly as quickly as they get published, so they’re something of a labor of love. But that’s okay – all of Hard Case Crime is a labor of love, really. And though we haven’t done many story collections in Hard Case Crime, I thought doing one to celebrate our 20th anniversary would be fun.


S.M.: In your opinion what makes the perfect short crime fiction story?


C.A.:I love a story than lands a punch at the close that takes your breath away. The three I mentioned above are good examples – of course, two of the three are so well known now that it’s almost impossible to imagine how much of a shock their endings were when the stories first appeared. But they were. The flood of mail The New Yorker received after publishing “The Lottery” attests to that. The shock doesn’t need to take the form of a plot twist (though I’m not ashamed of loving those) – it could just be a mordant final line that twists the knife in an unexpected way, or a climactic revelation that changes how you understand a character’s actions in the story you just read, or a bit of sudden emotional truth that brings tears to your eyes. It can be a lot of things – but the ending should have the impact of taking your breath away. You shouldn’t be able to turn the page and start the next story immediately – you should have to sit and digest for a while first. You know you’ve read a great story if you do that. And if you tell all your friends they need to read it too.


S.M.: Do you have any favorites from other writers?


C.A.: So many! Read the collected stories of Stanley Ellin, of Lawrence Block, of Graham Greene. Of Jack Ritchie, if you can find them. So many great ones just from those four gentlemen. Stephen King. Roald Dahl. Lord Dunsany. Philip Roth. Not all crime fiction, I realize. But a great story is a great story. If I had to pick one all-time favorite? “For Esme, With Love and Squalor” by Salinger. A crime story? Let’s call it a tie: “The Basement Room” by Graham Greene and “For the Rest of Her Life” by Cornell Woolrich.


S.M.: One of your stories was a Cornell Woolrich tribute "Sleep! Sleep! Burning Bright". How did you approach that?


C.A.: Maxim Jakubowski decided to compile a tribute anthology to Woolrich and invited me to contribute a story to it. As it happened, I had been thinking about a Woolrich-inspired story for some time, and had even begun it; this was my excuse to finish it, and to shamelessly submerge myself in Woolrich’s wonderful rhythms and his unique, feverish prose style. Prose is not a functional thing for Woolrich – it’s not there to sit invisibly on the page and convey to the reader what happened first and what happened next. It paints; it pants. It depicts sensation and emotion, breathlessly, painfully. I love to read it, and it was a great pleasure to get to write it. I did an interview with Eddie Muller once for a Woolrich DVD commentary and said that when Woolrich wrote it was like he slit his wrists and bled onto the page. To write like Woolrich, that’s what I had to do: feel the bone-deep anguish and just let it out.


S.M.: How has being an editor affected you as a writer?


C.A.: Reading the thousand-plus submissions that come our way each year has exposed me to the best and worst in writing, and seeing that full range is certainly educational. It also gives me a window into what ideas and topics and storylines are overdone. I decided early on that we wouldn’t publish serial killer novels in Hard Case Crime, and that’s turned out to be a huge blessing since it knocks out easily 60% of the submissions we get. So if you want to stand out from the pack – a serial killer novel isn’t the way to do it. I suppose I’ve also gotten a bit better at editing my own prose as a result of spending 20 years editing other people’s. But it’s still a very different task. When you read someone else’s sentences, you come to them cold, as a reader would, uninfluenced by any knowledge of what the writer had in mind when he chose this word or that. You can never have that distance from your own writing – and that makes editing yourself very different from editing someone else.


S.M.: What plans do you have for Hard Case's future?


C.A.: The remainder of our 20th anniversary year will feature return visits from some of our favorites: Cornell Woolrich is represented by his final, unfinished novel, INTO THE NIGHT, completed by Lawrence Block; Max Allan Collins brings back his notorious hitman in QUARRY’S RETURN; Rex Stout’s first crime novel, HOW LIKE A GOD, makes its comeback after an absence from bookstores of more than 50 years. And 2025 will kick off with a book I’m very excited about: THE GET OFF by Christa Faust, her first new novel about Angel Dare in 14 years, and the final chapter in Angel’s saga. The first Angel Dare novel, MONEY SHOT, was a finalist for the Edgar Award and our readers’ choice, some years back, for best Hard Case Crime novel of all time – so a new book in this series is a big deal for us. It’s a powerful read with a beautiful cover – what more could any fan of old-school crime fiction want?


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