Series editor Charles Ardai carved himself a nice piece of real estate by deciding to write Hard Case Crime's fiftieth book. On the outside looking in, a lot of people might think this move was merely an ego trip.
But that will change the instant they start turning pages in FIFTY-TO-ONE.
Ardai expertly hooks readers with the story of a small-town girl, Tricia, who comes to New York in the 1950s with stars in her eyes. Unexpectedly left to her own devices by her older sister, Tricia promptly gets swindled by a street con artist. Desperate, she tries to make the best of things and ends up getting hired on as a dance at a mob-run night club. Then she discovers that the guy that conned her is actually a small press publisher of crime and porn fiction who's currently down on his luck.
Pressuring Charles Borden, Tricia finds herself drawn into the crime fiction trade by penning a best-selling "nonfiction" tell-all book about the night club. She describes a robbery that takes place in the club, giving away details that enable an actual robbery to take place after the book comes out. (This attention to detail was one of the things that affected the publishing world several times as writers strove for reality.)
Admittedly, some of the plot twists Ardai takes are self-serving, but they're fun, and they allow him to stay on top of a tightly spun, multi-faceted plot that ultimately satisfies. Tricia, named Trixie at the night club, has the best and worst runs of luck, but they never fail to keep readers turning pages.
FIFTY-TO-ONE is simply the best kind of potboiler. Nothing, no character or situation, remains static for long. As in any good noir tale, loyalties and perspectives change with the wind. For the most part, it is Tricia against the world as she struggles to sort out the mystery of who truly stole the mobster's money and bloody secrets.
The dialogue is shot full of snappy one-liners that would have been at home on Old Time Radio. Ardai hits the lingo on the head, and he throws scenes out at his readers that are at once visceral and real. As I read the book, the movie played in my head. I forgot that the interface was words on a page and simply followed the story through the blindingly quick twists and turns.
Ardai also has a lot of fun sticking in period references to writing and writers. Mickey Spillane (thinly cloaked) puts in an appearance that is at once slapstick. Long-time mystery writers Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake also have small roles that lend to a lot of the history of the paperback market at that time as well as some great humor.
Adopting an added challenge, Ardai uses a title from each of the line's published books as a chapter heading. As a writer myself, I was intrigued by Ardai's choices to pull the chapters into line with the book titles. Plotting is tricky, especially when you're trying to pull off a tightly-knit novel. Some of those chapters work better than others, but they all work.
Fans of the Hard Case Crime books are in for a treat with this one, but it's a great place for readers new to this kind of fiction to jump on for a taste. Ardai also includes color pages of the line's first fifty books. The art on all of the novels is pulpy and sexy. I grew up on this stuff when it was published by Gold Medal, and a cover with a half-dressed woman holding a gun still lures me into picking up the book.
Pick a weekend, kick off your shoes, and sit back for a great read.