Monday, January 12, 2009

Charles Ardai at Murder by the Book

The day before Charles Ardai, a New Yorker, arrived in Houston, we all wore shirt sleeves and shorts. Yeah, it was January, but, hey, it’s Houston. On Saturday, however, a cold wind blew threw town, driving all Houstonians back to the closet for sweaters and socks. I’m not suggesting that Ardai brought the cold weather. It was a coincidence. But if he had, he also brought the antidote: a warm enthusiasm that shined through his wide grin and lively eyes.

We all have our hobbies and things over which we absolutely geek out. For many who read this blog, and for me as well, crime fiction is one of those subjects. I would not be writing this blog if I didn’t want to join the pantheon of crime writers, great and small. The folks whose blogs I link to over there on the right also fit into that category, even published ones. We’re fanboys and fangirls. We love the smell of old paperbacks, of finding that rare gem at a garage sale when the seller doesn’t know what he has, of watching old black-and-white movies and catching our breath when the good guy doesn’t see the billy club coming down on his head. We share a common bond and, to state the obvious, Charles Ardai is a fanboy just like us.

You already know that if you’ve picked up any of his Hard Case Crime novels. Those gorgeous covers, the classic authors, the up-and-comers, the forthcoming Gabriel Hunt novels: all proof that Ardai is living our idea of a dream job. Anyone can know this by reading interviews or listening to him on the radio. But you miss out on the visuals. What you can’t get from radio or print is the enthusiastic grin on his face when he talks about his love for old crime fiction from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. You really have to see it to get that full effect.

For a man whose reputation is so large within the crime fiction community, Ardai is, in person, quite normal. He wore gray slacks, black shoes, and a blue dress shirt opened to reveal a T-shirt with cops and robbers on it. I think it read “Eat lead, copper” but can’t remember exactly. His glasses are thicker than mine, probably the only outward indication that the man devours books.

Upon being introduced by David Thompson (of Murder by the Book and Busted Flush Press), Ardai and I struck up a short conversation. After David pulled him away, Bill Crider and I got to meet face-to-face again. We’d met only once before, at a book signing by Duane Sweirczynski for his book Severance Package, but, through blogs and comments, we have conversed for months since. I have yet to meet anyone in the crime fiction community as open as Mr. Crider. Even on Saturday, an event not featuring him, he was willing to sign books for fans who recognized him. Wonderful guy.

After a brief introduction, Ardai broke out what we all had been waiting for: his slide presentation detailing the history of Hard Case Crime. Among the nuggets of trivia we all learned were the following:

  • When pitching the concept of Hard Case Crime to publishers back in 2000, one of the key terms Ardai and co-founder Max Phillips, used was “Old School Cruddy”. They wanted HCC books to be found at a bachelor pad in Tribeca and on the floor of a tree fort.
  • The desired imprint they wanted was Kingpin Crime. Literally, the day before, Aaron Spelling secured rights to the “Kingpin” name and Ardai and Phillip had to go for choice #2.
  • When Robert McGinnis submitted his first painting for the cover of Richard Aleas’s Little Girl Lost, he drew too much “butt cleavage” on the girl. He had to cover her up. Odd that in the 1950s, butt cleavage was okay but, in 2004, if you want to sell your books in Wal-Mart, butt cleavage was banned.
  • It took seven steps, from initial concept to finish painting, for Chuck Pyle to complete the cover image for Grifter’s Game.
  • E. Howard Hunt, author of House Dick, was such a good writer (before his Watergate infamy) that he beat out Gore Vidal and Truman Capote for a Guggenheim fellowship

Needless to say, Ardai spent a good amount of time talking about the covers and showing concept art. Since we all know the covers so well, it was interesting to see how certain artists painted different scenes from the novel in question. And Ardai brought some photographs of the models, specifically for the cover of the forthcoming Losers Live Longer, the first landscape cover by HCC. They were, um, quite nice.

When it came time for the Q&A, many of the questions continued to revolve around the cover art. How long do the artists have to paint the covers? Two months, Ardai reported, although some have been known to finish a picture in a day. The six cover paintings for the Gabriel Hunt books were all painted by Glen Orbik in only three months.

Scott Montgomery, of Book People in Austin, Texas, asked Ardai about the structure of Fifty-to-One, Ardai’s tribute to the first forty-nine books HCC published. You remember this one, right? Each chapter title of the book Fifty-to-One corresponds to the title of a HCC book. All in order. Thus, Ardai said, if he had known back in 2005 that he was going to write a book with this structure, he would have published The First Quarry before The Last Quarry. Montgomery’s question was this: which book was the most difficult to include. Ardai’s answer was simple: A Diet of Treacle. And he told us the genesis of the title itself, how Lawrence Block suggested it to Ardai and Ardai accepted. Again, had he known...

One of the biggest treats of the evening was Ardai’s discussion of the upcoming Gabriel Hunt novels. There will be six books--and the covers are fantastic--all by different writers. He created the “Hunt Bible” so that Ardai and the five other writers would all be on the same page even when they are on different computers. And Ardai himself will be editing all six books. What about research? Ardai had a directive: don’t do any. He didn’t want any of the writers getting bogged down in research. If you’re writing about Africa, make it the Africa of your imagination. He even pulled out a sheaf of papers with the first 20,000 words of his Hunt book (to give to David Thompson) and read the first paragraph. Oh, boy! Are you ready for these books?

I had time to ask a question posed on Bill Crider’s blog last Friday about John D. MacDonald and Hard Case Crime. Why hasn’t Hard Case Crime published any of MacDonald’s non-Travis McGee books? Ardai was delicate in his answer but it comes down to money.

After the talk and Q&A, there was a drawing. Ardai brought the audio version of Donald Westlake’s Somebody Owes Me Money (the best of the HCC titles on audio; my review here) and a copy of the hard cover edition of his first novel, Little Girl Lost. The prized possessions, however, were two ties featuring the cover art of Fifty-to-One. I didn’t win one but I sure wanted one. How cool would that have been. (Actually, the prized possession would have been that sheaf of paper.)

Folks then lined up for book signings and I got to chat with some folks. I met Morris, a guy who, by now (he was going home to finish Killing Castro that night), will have read all fifty-one HCC titles. Laura Elvebak is always a fun person to talk with and she signed a couple of her books while we were there. I stayed a bit longer and watched as Ardai happily signed every single Aleas or Ardai title the bookstore had on hand (stacks and stacks). If his hand got tired, it didn’t show.

It was a fun and enjoyable evening. We met an affable man who is more than willing to please his fans. We were treated to a few scoops along the way. And we got to fellowship with like-minded folks. Yeah, when we left, it was darker and colder than when we had arrived. But that didn’t matter, really. You see, we were all smiling.

You can find my interview with Charles Ardai here.
Bill Crider posted a blog with photos here. He also posted an up-close image of one of the Gabriel Hunt book covers here.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Felt like I was there!

David Cranmer said...

Patti swiped my comment. Thanks Scott, a lot of good info.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Charles is everywhere. Here is another one from New York Magazine, which was news to me. Now I'll have to buy the book.

Morris said...

Hey Scott!

It was good to meet you at the Ardai signing! Great job on the article. I loved the step-by-step presentation of the art process as well.

The Gabriel Hunt series looks to be tremendous fun, doesn't it?

I finished "Killing Castro" that night, so now I've read all 51 Hard Case books.


Jacob Weaver said...

Sounds like it was a great time! Another great right up Scott.


Scott - I'm envious. Wish I'd been there.

Barbara Martin said...

Very nice post. I agree with Patti and David.

I'll be back later to read more of your blog to study up on crime writing.

Laura Elvebak said...

Great blog, Scott. I enjoyed talking to you after the event. I wish I hadn't been late, but had a previous commitment at the Alley. I missed out on the slideshow, but you encapsulated his talk so well, I feel as if I hadn't missed anything. Saw many familiar faces, and Charles was wonderful.

eejut said...

i'm so impatient now for the Hunt books, i'm like a kid waiting for christmas.

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