Imagine that a mysterious figure walks into your office one day with a big box of books and lays out for you, one by one, a dozen books by one of the world’s bestselling authors—novels so rare or so unknown that the superstar’s hordes of fans and the reading public at large would be tripping over themselves to get to them.
That’s a bit what a day at the office is for Hard Case Crime, which this month finally published no less than eight under-the-radar novels, all by the late Michael Crichton, the author of colossal bestsellers like Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain and Rising Sun. Originally published under the pen name “John Lange,” these propulsive, pulpy thrillers from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s are just the sort of thing that founding publisher Charles Ardai gets off on.
This is the second or third time that Charles and I have declared our mutual love for great American pulp fiction but it’s the first time we’ve gotten to talk at length about the evolution of this truly unique publishing experiment. Ardai launched the line in 2004 in partnership with Max Phillips, who wrote the Shamus Award-winning novel Fade to Blonde. When Ardai talks about his love of his old paperback collection, it’s with love for the whole package: the luridly illustrated covers and the terse and engaging prose that drags you through a few hundred pages at top velocity—even the shape and size of the books, small enough to slip into a back pocket. Hard Case Crime is also about the chance to resurrect classic novels by writers like Mickey Spillane, Harlan Ellison, and James M. Cain, as well as publishing terrific new novels by writers like Christa Faust, Johnny Porkpie and a little-known fan of pulp fiction named Stephen King.
“These have all been amazing discoveries,” Ardai says from his office in New York. “The project that I’ve worked on the longest for Hard Case Crime has been these Michael Crichton novels. I knew about them because I had read them myself as a kid but they were very hard to find. In those days, you had to haunt used bookstores to find them, and they weren’t cheap.”
But Crichton, who was still alive when Ardai approached him almost 10 years ago, was cautious. It took the recommendation of no less than Stephen King, who published two brand new novels (The Colorado Kid and Joyland) with Hard Case Crime, to convince him. Not to mention that Crichton himself demanded a big catch.
“He said he liked our books, particularly our covers,” Ardai remembers. “He said that he would let us reprint one but we couldn’t breathe a word to anyone that he was the author: nothing on our website, no hints to our sales force, no one. We had to publish them as John Lange and not ‘Michael Crichton writing as.’ ”
But after Hard Case Crime published Grave Descend in 2006, Crichton immediately approved the release of Zero Cool in 2008. Then, of course, the author tragically died from lymphoma at the age of 66. It’s taken Ardai five years working with the author’s estate to bring out the remaining books under the author’s real name. They’re very much in the same vein, bearing titles like The Venom Business and Drug of Choice. Unlike the not-so-mild pornography churned out by writers like Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block under pen names early in their careers, these new Hard Case Crime offerings by Crichton reveal a writer in the prime of his career, written in the same timeframe as blockbusters like Terminal Man and The Andromeda Strain.
“I think they were written quickly in the same manner as you see John Banville and Benjamin Black (Banville’s nom de plume for his crime novels) writing at the same time,” Ardai observes. “Crichton said himself in an interview, ‘I write the John Lange books quickly and people read them quickly.’ They have a kind of velocity to them that I would describe as ‘pulpier.’ As you can imagine, that’s not a pejorative coming out of my mouth. I wish more modern novels were pulpier and more immediate and I think a lot of other readers do, too.”
Landing the Crichton collection is just the latest in a string of successes for Hard Case Crime, which launched itself with the publication of Lawrence Block’s Grifter’s Game in 2004 and now sports more than 120 titles. Ardai’s detective work has led to the unearthing and publishing of storied titles like James M. Cain’s final novel The Cocktail Waitress as well as dozens of other legendary figures ranging from Mickey Spillane to E. Howard Hunt.
Upcoming releases include Borderline, a lusty pulp novel by Lawrence Block originally published in 1962; a never-before-published novel called Brainquake by the lurid American film director Samuel Fuller; Easy Death, a book by new writer Daniel Boyd that Ardai describes as a Christmas novel in the same way that Lethal Weapon and Die Hard are Christmas movies; and two new novels about the hitman Quarry by Max Allen Collins that should benefit from an upcoming Cinemax series about the elusive character. Ardai believes that the rise of darkly cinematic series like Breaking Bad and the success of Hard Case Crime are both based in the public’s fervor for darker stories.
“We’re in a real renaissance for creative, original television production and it’s a terrifically exciting time for visual storytelling,” he says. “Everyone is looking for the next big thing and it’s all character-driven. It’s not as if Breaking Bad was the first show about drug dealers or Game of Thrones was the first show to use elements of fantasy. What makes it work is the quality of the writing and the characters. Not all of our books work, but many of our books do feature characters who would make for compelling figures in serial drama.”
The most extraordinary “get” of Ardai’s career is of course the blessing of fiction’s superstar, Stephen King, whose more than 50 books have sold a staggering 350 million copies. Ardai, like many of us, picked up the many clues over the years that King was an uncloseted fan of pulp fiction whose novels are littered with nods to writers like Richard Matheson and Donald Westlake. It all started when Ardai began chasing a blurb for one of Hard Case Crime’s books.
“It was a Hail Mary pass that had no chance of succeeding but we had to take the shot,” Ardai remembers. “At the time, people might pick up our books because the cover art is sexy, but if we had just one line, five words, from Stephen King, we thought it might help people pick up these books that we both love and admire. So I get this call from one of his people that says he doesn’t want to write the blurb…and there’s this pause…and then I hear, ‘…because he wants to write you a book.’” Ardai was understandably floored by the news.
That’s how King came to write The Colorado Kid for Hard Case Crime, which was published in 2005 and later adapted as the television series Haven by SyFy, on which Ardai serves as a consulting producer. This year, King gifted Hard Case Crime with the original novel Joyland, which is already turning up on a whole bunch of best-of-2013 lists. “The Colorado Kid really did put us on the map and I’m ridiculously grateful to him,” Ardai says.
Of course, there are those novels that get away and it’s impossible for people like Ardai and me not to talk about those rumored gems that are out there. Ardai confirms the existence of Grimmhaven, the lost Charles Willeford novel that only exists in a library archive in Ft. Lauderdale. “He made his wife swear at the end of his life that she would never let anyone publish it,” Ardai says. “I’m not going to go against a man’s dying wish.”
Another book that we all go around and around over is A Black Border for McGee, supposedly the final novel of the great American writer John D. MacDonald. The tale’s roots lie in a 1979 article in Time Magazine that began, “Locked inside a beige file cabinet in Sarasota, Fla., is an unfinished manuscript entitled A Black Border for McGee.” Ardai has heard the rumors, too.
“Never say never, but I have done some poking around and I can say with at least some confidence that particular book doesn’t exist and never did exist,” Ardai says. “There just aren’t that many left. After doing this for 10 years, we’ve unearthed a lot of books and brought them back into print. It’s not that we’re running out of new books to publish but we’re running out of these extraordinary treasures. What do you do when you’re Indiana Jones and you’ve already found the Holy Grail?”
Finally, I have to ask Ardai if he gets a little thrill thinking about someone discovering a battered and well-loved copy of one of his books in a used bookstore a few decades down the line.
“I would love that scenario, because that’s how we created Hard Case Crime,” Ardai laughs. “My dad had a shelf full of these 35-cent paperbacks and that’s what we wanted to bring back. In some ways, what you really want is for this imprint to be long gone, and have someone bring it back. Some enterprising young person finds me in a nursing home somewhere and asks me for the rights to use the name—that’s the right way to do it. If we’re still publishing in 20 years, we’ve done something wrong. But as long as people want these books and I have the energy, we’re going to keep it up.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.