CIS: Interview with Charles Ardai

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Classics in September — We couldn’t do a month of classic crime fiction without mentioning Hard Case Crime, could we? We’ve said it here on the site and we’ve tweeted about it – this publishing house is putting out some great throwback hardboiled and noir material, reprinting lost manuscripts by top authors like Mickey Spillane and James M Cain, and what’s more they commission fantastic pulp art jackets for each book. This quality outfit was co-founded by author Charles Ardai, himself an Edgar Award-winning novelist. We had to find out what makes HCC tick…

What is it that fascinates you about the pulp era in general?
It’s somehow rawer than the present, more colourful, more alive. There’s something grand and romantic about it, which is why an adventure picture set in the pulp era – Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance – feels different from one set in the modern day. For crime fiction, it’s a return to a time before cell phones, before Google, before DNA testing, when one man working alone, with just his wits and two fists for company, could make a difference.

Which classic crime books would you say have influenced you the most?
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler – Hammett may have come first, but Chandler did it better, introducing the cynical, hardened, but deep-down idealistic private eye and giving him a voice full of poetry and razor-sharp observation.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett – Okay, can’t leave Dash out entirely. This book, and the beautiful film version that brought it to life for millions of viewers around the world, gave us the quest for a Holy Grail always just out of reach and the bruising elevation of the detective’s code over his desires. Spade may be a tarnished knight, but King Arthur’s boys have nothing on him.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain – No detective, just two desperate criminals hatching and then executing a plan; brutal and ruthless and sex-drenched. And when they come up for breath, have they found the happiness they sought? No, my friend, they have not. Cain took crime stories out of the drawing room and put them back in the gutter where they belonged.

And, The Black series by Cornell Woolrich – In the history of crime fiction, no author has inhabited the night and all its terrors better than Cornell Woolrich. Himself a haunted, fractured man, his books make you feel his characters’ agony. Fear, hunger, pain, deprivation, loneliness, despair – you’re there in his characters’ shoes. The Bride Wore Black, The Black Curtain, The Black Alibi, The Black Angel, The Black Path of Fear, Rendezvous in Black. I’ll even throw in Waltz into Darkness for good measure.

What does a book need to be considered a classic?
The test of time. If you read a book today and love it, that makes it a good book, but not a classic. Not even an ‘instant classic’, whatever the hell that means. If you read a book today and love it and then read it again in 10 years and still love it, and then read it again in 10 more years and love it even more – that’s a classic.

And what would you say is the most underrated crime novel out there?
The Fabulous Clipjoint by Frederic Brown is one of the very finest detective stories ever written. It won the Edgar Award and has been reprinted several times, so it can hardly be said to have been ignored, but for some reason it’s not nearly as well known or as widely read as the classics I listed. I’m also abnormally fond of The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers, which is a cult classic but deserves to be seen as a classic, period. Then there are books we’ve reprinted in Hard Case Crime, such as A Touch of Death by Charles Williams, which pretty much everyone who reads loves, but which almost no-one in living memory had read until we brought out our edition.

What inspired you to set up Hard Case Crime?
The desire to give deserving but unfairly forgotten novels a chance to find a new generation of readers. Another part was the chance for my co-founder Max Phillips and I to write Gold Medal novels ourselves. We were both born too late to write for the real Gold Medal imprint or any of the other original pulp houses, so if we wanted to write that type of book and see it presented in that style, we realised we’d have to start our own publishing company to do it.

You’ve published some of the greats but have there been any books that you’ve wanted to publish that got away for any reason?
We found a lost pulp novel by the late Gore Vidal, and he considered letting us reprint it, but in the end decided not to. Same with Alan Furst, who declined our request to reprint his Edgar-nominated first novel, which is simply terrific but for some reason he seems to be embarrassed by it. Same with Martin Cruz Smith, who declined to let us reprint one of his early books even after Harlan Ellison went to bat for us. But the list of books we wanted to do and couldn’t is dwarfed by the dozens we’ve wanted to do and done. Are there others we’ve heard about and would love to get our hands on? Sure. But mostly they’re new books by current authors. We’d love to get our hands on a new book by Megan Abbott, and she knows it. Or another new novel by Lawrence Block. As for lost books by authors long-gone, I’m sure there are some treasures still out there, but we’ll only know it when we find them.

What about your own writing – have you got any crime fiction on the way for us?
Yes, but not in book form. For the last three years I’ve been working as a consulting producer on the TV series Haven, which was inspired by the first book Stephen King wrote for us, The Colorado Kid. I consult on all the scripts for the show and have been fortunate enough to write some myself. In the third season, which is about to start in September, you’ll see my name on Episode 10, Burned. I love writing for television – the only unfortunate thing is that it takes time away from writing books. But now that the third season is pretty much in the can, I’m looking forward to sitting down and working on my next novel.

Watch for our review of The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain later on in Classics in September.

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