Fifty To One Mass Market Paperback – Nov 3 2008
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About the Author
Charles Ardai is the founder and editor of Hard Case Crime and the Edgar Award-winning author of the acclaimed novels Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence. --This text refers to an alternate Mass Market Paperback edition.
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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.
Charley Borden is a publisher, editor, and self-proclaimed rip-off artist. The best-selling book of his publishing line, Hard Case Crime Books, is blatant Mickey Spillane pilferage -- Eye the Jury by Nicky Malone ("a Mac Hatchet mystery") -- and he thrives on bad publicity because it sells books.
But Charley's a likeable sort, so when he asks showgirl Tricia "Trixie" Heverstadt -- who dances in a famous gangster's nightclub but really wants to write for The New Yorker -- to write a true-crime work on her boss's exploits, she is glad to oblige for a penny a word. Only the story she tells -- of the theft of the gangster's millions -- is completely made up.
Or so she thinks. The gangster disagrees; the details of the events depicted in Tricia's novel happened to him exactly the way she wrote them -- down to the combination of the vault -- and he wants to know who the thief was. The police would also like to know the identity of the book's author (published as "Anonymous" to create mystery and sell more books, of course) and no one is going to let up until they get what they want.
Fifty-to-One is the 50th book in the Hard Case Crime line (the real one), founded in 2004 by Charles Ardai and Max Phillips. In recognition of this milestone, Ardai felt a very special sort of book was called for, and he wrote it himself (though Phillips contributed a chapter).
And Ardai really set himself a challenge: to tell a riveting story in 50 chapters, each named after the Hard Case Crime books published up to that point, in chronological order. Chapter 1 is "Grifter's Game," chapter 2 is "Fade to Blonde," etc. (Observant readers will also find references to books 51-55.) And Ardai's story tries its damnedest to deliver what the chapter titles promise.
Along for the ride are a couple of writers named Larry and Don (maybe you've heard of them?), ever-ready with a quip or a caper. Their influence is felt in how Ardai deftly commingles suspense and humor in what is undoubtedly the funniest book Hard Case Crime has published to date. (The humor carries you through a few too many convenient coincidences.) Ardai makes fun of the publishing business, the crime genre, and best of all, he makes fun of himself!
Fifty-to-One is well paced, and it has that pulp-style written-in-a-hurry feel that adds to its sense of immediacy. That said, it also feels a little too long at 330 pages. But it's hard to be too critical of a book that is so obviously a labor of love. Ardai didn't have to write a special book to commemorate Hard Case Crime's 50th "anniversary," so the fact that he wanted to is all the more endearing.
Ardai's novel isn't meant to be a future classic -- it's just a fun, self-referential romp purely intended to offer a few hours' diversion along with its plethora of cross-merchandising (an 8-page gallery of all 50 covers is included in place of the usual club advertisement). The great thing is, fans will see these as bonuses, which just goes to show how attuned to his readers Ardai is. He has produced a novel that attempts many things and succeeds at more of them than should have been possible. Fifty-to-One is a book that is not only a solid example of the comic crime novel, but also goes to show what a really good writer can come up with when he truly challenges himself.
To celebrate the publication of Hard Case Crime's fiftieth book, Ardai, the erstwhile founder of Hard Case Crime and author in his own right, decided to write a pulp novel that paid homage to all of the previous forty-nine books Hard Case Crime had already published. He also decided to pay homage to the some of the masters of pulp fiction by including them in some manner in his book. The result is a book that is part tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek parody and part terrific pulp novel. It is hard enough to do one of these and no one knows how hard to do both of these things at once. Hats off to Ardai for successfully pulling this clever feat off and writing a truly thrilling tale that was extremely hard to put down until one reached the end.
This is the third Ardai book that I have read in the last two weeks, the previous two having been published under his pen name Richard Aleas. I wholeheartedly recommend all three of these books to the pulp reader (Little Girl Lost, Songs of Innocence, and Fifty To One). Besides terrific covers and terrific writing, what do these three have in common? Ardai focuses all of these stories on a young, innocent small-town hick as his protagonist. This young innocent hick comes to big bad New York City and encounters strippers and mobsters and, with the entire city seemingly against this protagonist, solves a deepening mystery.
This book (Fifty To One) opens with Patricia Heverstadt arriving from South Dakota with two suitcases and a typewriter out to follow her older sister's footsteps in New York City. Of course, her sister tells her to go home and, within moments of arriving, she is conned out of most of her funds by some sharp talking New Yorker. She, still carrying her bags, follows the address on the business card left her by the con artist to an office building where she auditions for a dancing part. Having no money left, she asks the producers for an advance and they give her a place to stay in the "Chateau," which turns out to be a converted office next door with bunks for a dozen would-be starlets. Trixie, as she now calls herself, finds no other than her con man on the same floor and he is none other than "Charlie" who is running a new publishing house, Hard Case Crime and is also running from a beating by none other than Mickey Spillane. Could "Charlie" be an alter ego for Charles Ardai? Hard to tell.
In addition to her dancing career (at a club run by mobsters, of course), it seems Trixie is an aspiring novelist who writes a novel (using the pen name "anonymous") telling the story about a how a famous mobster is robbed of $3 million. Since truth is always stranger than fiction, it turns out that the mobster was actually robbed of $3 million and, of course, Trixie is the prime suspect since she bragged about it in her book.
With that as a backdrop, Ardai takes the reader on a journey through late fifties New York and pits Trixie and Charlie against a mobster determined to get his money back.
Ardai had a little fun with this one, throwing in odd bits of parody throughout the book. He also named each chapter after a Hard Case Crime book. The title refers not just to the book's number within the ranks of Hard Case publishing history, but also to a card game that a mobster likes to play. One card is removed from the deck and the odds are fifty-to-one that the player can now guess the top card. Guess it and maybe you live a little longer. Fail to guess it and there might be a new bullet hole in your chest.
It's a great fun novel to read in and of itself and the bits of parody that Ardai throws in actually do not take away from the finished product. I really enjoyed reading this one.
This results in certain challenges, particularly with regard to plot and tone. The bottom line, however, is that the chapter titles are cute and fun, but do not really shape the book. The book stands on its own merits and it's a veritable gem.
Paricia Heverstadt, aka Trixie, aka Tricia, has come to New York from South Dakota, following her sister Coral. Coral has found work as a dancer and so does Tricia. Discovering that she works for a Gotham criminal she also encounters Charles Borden, erstwhile publisher of `Hard Case Crime' books as well as some cash cow pornography. He's looking for material and Tricia supplies a heist novel, the mark being her crime-family boss. Then, lo and behold, it happens that the heist has actually been pulled off and Tricia's being threatened by `Uncle Nick', the crime boss as well as a host of subsidiary characters she encounters in her attempts to elude Nick, find the stolen swag, free her captured sister and her potential partner, Charles Borden and . . . well, you get the point.
This is a breakneck romp, a tour of Gotham with lots of blood and lots of smiles. One of the high points occurs at Aqueduct, where Tricia--good girl of the northern plains that she is--escapes the bad guys on a race horse which she promptly rides through the not so mean streets of Queens.
Maintaining the balance between suspense, violence and lighthearted humor is the real challenge here, not the chapter titles, and Ardai succeeds beautifully. One of the jacket blurbs suggests that the best writer in Ardai's (aka Richard Aleas) stable is Ardai himself. That may just be true, but he's also enough of a pro here to feature a cameo appearance by Block and Westlake, two of his star authors. Their appearance comes at just the right moment and in just the right, unanticipated fashion.
Fifty-To-One is longer than the vast majority of Hard Case Crime novels and every page is a delight. This is a don't miss. And Charles--thanks for the series; how about a sequel for Tricia?