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Girls, guns and money

A revival of the pulp fiction paperback genre

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN

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The covers of Hard Case books resemble those of the pulp genre in its heyday.

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- When Charles Ardai and Max Phillips, both lovers of pulp fiction, decided to form a new paperback imprint dedicated to resuscitating the golden age of pulp paperbacks, they did so in the time-honored manner of pulp characters through the ages -- over drinks.

"Alcohol was involved, of course, and this is the sort of idea you generally expect will fade as sobriety returns, but the next day we both still loved the idea," said co-founder Ardai in an interview.

"We knew how much work it would be, but the more we thought about it, the more irresistible it seemed."

So the pair, both veteran writers (Ardai even worked at Davis Publications, parent company of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Analog), took some of the money they'd made with the D.E. Shaw Group, an investment and technology development firm, and established Hard Case Crime publishing.

The idea was to reissue some of the classics of the hard-boiled genre, including decades-old novels by Domenic Stansberry, Donald Hamilton, Ed McBain, Richard Stark, Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake.

Most of these were originally published between the 1940s and 1960s, and have now been repackaged in classic pulpy mass-market form, complete with original noirish paintings commissioned for each book (all of which have a six-dollar price point, aimed at the widest audience possible).

But the idea wasn't just irresistible to them. Other writers -- both newcomers and veterans such as Westlake -- were attracted to the imprint.

This year Hard Case has rolled out its first original novels, written exclusively for the publisher -- kicking off with one of the biggest names of them all, Stephen King.

King's short mystery "The Colorado Kid," which eschews supernatural interlopers in favor of a cold-case mystery (though one rife with trademark King morsels --"Nice and pink down there," quips a medical examiner of a corpse's lungs), has put Hard Case on the best-seller lists.

"The publication of 'The Colorado Kid' represents a big step forward for us," Ardai said. "With a first printing of nearly one million copies, it's by far the biggest book we've ever published, quite possibly the biggest [distributor] Dorchester has ever published as well."

"I'm delighted by everything they've done," says Westlake, a three-time Edgar Award winner and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, whose novel "361" was reissued by Hard Case in May.

'Taste and high energy'

The plots still shine with chrome-tipped hard edges and bright puddles of blood.

In "361," for example, a veteran's father is shot dead while driving and the son turns to revenge.

In David Dodge's "Plunder of the Sun," a private detective is paid to smuggle a package to Peru, with various murders all around.

"Branded Woman," by Wade Miller (who also wrote the book on which Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" was based), stars a seductive jewel thief and her shot at revenge.

Westlake is particularly appreciative of the imprint's desire to serve up its pulp with blades intact.

"The postwar hard-boiled paperback original, from the late 1940s through the '60s, used the experience of World War II to form a fatalistic tough-minded worldview, in which trust is almost always wrong," he says.

"We write now in a different world, with different experiences and different expectations. I would say the books now are softer because the experiences of this world are softer."

Mystery-writing legend Block, whose second Hard Case novel, "The Girl With the Long Green Heart," will be published next month, was also pleased.

"I think they're playing a role similar to that played a generation ago by Black Lizard [an imprint created by Creative Arts Books of Berkeley in the late '70s and purchased by Random House imprint Vintage in the early '90s], and doing so with taste and high energy."

Ardai and Phillips have big plans for Hard Case. Dorchester has played a key role, they emphasize -- "They've gotten our books not only into bookstores of all sizes, but also drugstores and truck stops and military PXs and all those other markets that have always formed the backbone of the mass market distribution system," says Ardai -- and they want to keep growing. King's best-seller hasn't hurt, either.

"We published six books in our first year, we're publishing nine this year, and we're scheduled to publish 12 in 2006," Ardai said.

That's worth a drink. Straight up.

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