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A crime line of passion

Charles Ardai has gone from dot-comming it to whodunits with Hard Case, a retro-style content provider.

July 02, 2006|Denise Hamilton | Special to The Times

SAY you started an Internet company back in 1995 that really took off. Then you sold it and found yourself floating in enough dough to fulfill your heart's desire. What would you do?

Charles Ardai, founder of Juno Online Services Inc., started a publishing company. Not some online media venture, mind you, but about the most old-school throwback you could imagine. With partner Max Phillips, Ardai became a publisher of paperback crime novels, the kind with staccato prose and lurid covers depicting scantily clad women that so captivated the American imagination in the 1950s and '60s.

Launched in 2004, Hard Case Crime now releases a book each month, a carefully calibrated mix of old classics and new blood that is gaining its own cult readership. It's an audience that appreciates the total aesthetic surrounding hard-boiled crime novels, including the eye-catching cover art. To capture the retro feel they craved, Ardai and Phillips tracked down artists such as Robert McGinnis, who drew some of the genre's Golden Age covers, and hired them to paint some new Hard Case jackets.

Their biggest coup came last year when Stephen King, a longtime fan of pulp novels, offered to write a book for Hard Case called "The Colorado Kid." Hard Case did a printing of 1 million copies, and though they don't disclose sales figures, the book made the New York Times bestseller list. Since then, a number of Hard Case titles have also been optioned for film, and the company even turned a small profit last year, Ardai said, though not enough of one to recoup all its expenses.

Ardai "has a really great eye in picking quality original work and neglected older books that should be back in print," said Sarah Weinman, an industry observer who writes the influential crime book blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.

Although Ardai's business background certainly helps, it was his and Phillips' consuming passion for the pulps that drove everything.

"We loved their philosophy: providing maximal entertainment with minimal means and at a minimal price," said Phillips.. Those old "paperback original" books, he said, "were highly efficient devices for delivering a good time. We liked that spirit and wanted both to celebrate it and to rekindle it."

Ardai, who edits, copy-edits and proofs every book with a "Felix Ungerish obsession" about word spacing, says he was smitten by dime novels growing up in New York, where he'd accompany his parents to garage sales to find them. "I was taken with the irresistible physical form of the book itself, how it fit into a jeans pocket, how you could read it with one thumb bending the cover back while you ate a hot dog," he said. "They felt totally different from the books you read in school. They were stripped down and spare, with powerful, gut-wrenching prose. And they were sexy, which when you're 16, is appealing too."

Ardai cites author Lawrence Block as one of his earliest muses, praising his "great plotting and wonderful colloquial style like people actually talk." In homage, the first book Hard Case published, in fall 2004, was Block's long out-of-print classic "Grifter's Game," which came out in 1961 as "Mona."

In high school, Ardai indulged his love of a different genre with an unpaid internship at Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, where the elderly author took Ardai under his wing. When Ardai majored in English at Columbia University, his mother despaired he would ever make a living.

But after college Ardai landed a coveted job as an investment banker at the D.E. Shaw group. In 1994, Ardai dreamed up what became the Internet provider Juno. When Juno was sold in 2001, Ardai and Phillips, the company's art director, met at the Blue Bar of the Algonquin Hotel in New York and talked about what they wanted to do next.

Once they discovered their shared passion for midcentury pulp and sorrow at the genre's demise, it was a short hop to seeing a market opportunity. They decided to start their own firm, running the editorial and artistic side and finding a publisher to print and distribute the line. That led them to Dorchester Publishing in New York, one of the few mass market firms that remains independently owned

"It was a nice fit because no one was doing anything in mass market, and there's quite an audience for these books," said Tim DeYoung, a senior vice president at Dorchester.

Of course, plenty of publishers bring out crime novels in paperback. But few do hard-boiled in such a branded and stylized way as Hard Case.

"People are attracted by the covers, that's the first thing that hits their eye," said Bobby McCue, the manager of the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood. He keeps Hard Case books in their own little display case, "an old antiquated paperback stand," he said, and they sell slowly but steadily.

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