Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Three years ago today I wrote the first post at I've Been Reading Lately. Nearly six hundred posts later, I can't think of a better way to mark the anniversary than to commemorate another, more impressive milestone: the publication of the fiftieth book under the Hard Case Crime imprint.

I discovered Hard Case Crime the same way a lot of readers did: through the extensive coverage of their publication of Stephen King's The Colorado Kid, which was the subject of one of my first posts. Three years and thirty-seven books later, I still look forward to the arrival of each month's new title in my mailbox.

The fiftieth book, Fifty-to-One, by founding editor Charles Ardai, starts with the ingenious premise that the occasion is the fiftieth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, and it follows the adventures of the line's founder, Charley Borden, along with a dancing girl from South Dakota newly landed in the big city and the mobsters on whose wrong side--a mile wide, unsurprisingly--they soon find themselves.

In addition, Ardai has given his novel another twist: it consists of fifty chapters, named after (and related to) the titles of each of the books in the series. Being familiar with the series, I found myself looking forward to how this Oulipian conceit would force Ardai to figure out ways to finagle his way around such unpromising titles as A Diet of Treacle, Lemons Never Lie, and Grave Descend; I particularly liked his solutions to David Dodge's Plunder of the Sun and the Robert Bloch two-fer Shooting Star/Spiderweb.

But the rules Ardai has set for himself are only part of the fun. As a celebration should, Fifty-to-One feels like a book that was as much fun to write as it is to read. Its ramshackle charms remind me of nothing so much as late-1930s Hollywood movies, wherein you get the sense that the filmmakers threw in everything they thought their audience would enjoy and assumed they'd keep up with the plot. Gunplay, romance, sharp dialogue, character actors--it's all here, along with a heist, some bookies, the FBI, and more. The heroine plays like a more innocent Barbara Stanwyck (which would make her, what, Claudette Colbert?), and the baddies arrayed against her could surely accommodate Edward G. Robinson and Sydney Greenstreet; meanwhile, Ardai has resisted the urge to cast the series's founder as a flawless, lantern-jawed leading man, leaving him instead in the nebbishier reaches of the previously unexplored nexus between Ugarte and Han Solo.

As the pleasantly wild plot ticks through its surprises, we're also treated to a loving reconstruction of the seedier side of 1958 New York City, its racetracks and nightclubs, subways and taxicabs--Ardai even takes a few well-deserved shots at evil old Robert Moses. The most fun, though, are the cameos, from an violent Mickey Spillane to the wryly comic young writers Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block, who serve as a sort of pulp Bert and Ernie--or, more accurately, Ernie and Ernie.

Unapologetically a romp, Fifty-to-One carries none of the seriousness or psychological weight of the novels Ardai has written under the pen name of Richard Aleas, the second of which, Songs of Innocence, is one of the best crime novels I know. But it's a sheer joy to read, and a worthy celebration of a series that has brought me countless pleasure over the past three years.

Congratulations on reaching fifty, Hard Case. Here's to fifty more good years to come.

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