Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fifty-to-One by Charles Ardai (Hard Case Crime)

"[This game is] called 'Fifty-to-One'. Those are the odds, you see."
"Of winning?"
"Of surviving."
— from Fifty-to-One

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.


Paul Bishop said...

Good review. I'm looking forward to reading Fifty-to-one in the spirit you suggest.

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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