Monday, November 21, 2011

PULPTACULAR | Hard Case Crime

“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” they say. This is of course ridiculous. We do it all the time. At least, I do. And most of my friends. It’s what covers are for.

If the saying were, “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,” I’d be on board. I’ve bought plenty of books based on something communicated by the cover only to be disappointed that the story didn't match. And I don’t doubt that I’ve missed out on some quality literature because I couldn’t get past an awful cover.

Hard Case Crime understands the importance of great cover art. That doesn’t make them unique in the New Pulp world (Age of Aces and Altus come to mind as other publishers with especially strong covers) and it’s certainly not the only thing that Hard Case does right. But it is the first thing I noticed about them when they started publishing in 2004. Their covers are original creations that recapture the excitement and flair of the lurid pulp paperbacks of the mid-twentieth century.

The second thing I noticed was their authors. There were plenty of new names on Hard Case’s books, but there were also folks like Stephen King, Robert Bloch, and Max Allan Collins. And before long, even some of those new names – Christa Faust immediately springs to mind – became familiar based on the strength of their stories. Hard Case quickly became a publisher I was interested in following, even if their output was more prolific than I could keep up with.

Early titles that caught my attention were Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid, John Lange’s Grave Descend (about treasure hunters and murder off the coast of Jamaica), and Christa Faust’s Money Shot (in which a porn star tracks down the killers who shot her and left her for dead in the trunk of a car). And then there’s the Gabriel Hunt series about an Indiana Jones-like, globe-trotting explorer.

Any of those would make great places to start, but as usual I wanted to get the publisher’s perspective on his books and where to dig in. I talked to co-founder Charles Adlard about it.

Michael: What led you to start Hard Case Crime?

Charles: My friend Max [Phillips] and I loved the old paperback crime novels of the 1940s and ‘50s and ‘60s, but no one was publishing books that looked (or read) like that anymore in 2001. Which meant there were no new ones for us to read and also that, as novelists, we didn’t have the chance to write books like that and see them published in that format. So over drinks one night we asked each other, “Why don’t we just start a line of our own?” It was a crazy idea and should by all rights have vanished when we’d sobered up the next day, but it didn’t, and here we are, a decade and seventy-some-odd books later.

Michael: What differentiates you from other pulp-inspired publishers?

Charles: Well, we came first, for one thing. I mean, obviously the original pulp houses came first first: Dell, Signet, Pocket Library, Graphic, Lion, Avon, Gold Medal. And then there was Black Lizard in the 1980s. But after Black Lizard sold out to Vintage and got all arty and sophisticated (and pared back their line to just the big canonical writers), there was no one for two decades doing the kind of publishing we wanted to do. Hard Case Crime led the new pulp revival in many ways. Apart from that, we were the only house putting books out in the classic, mass-market format (although we have since expanded into trade-paperbacks and hardcovers), and we were the only ones commissioning brand new cover paintings in the classic style by artists of the caliber of Robert McGinnis and Glen Orbik and Greg Manchess. Not every one of our covers has been solid gold, but we’re proud of how well most of them have come out, and we think they’re a real asset that other pulp houses generally don’t have.

We also tend to reach a larger readership. We put out more than one million copies of the book Stephen King wrote for us, for instance. Of course, the rest of our books didn’t sell anywhere near that level, but where some of the smaller pulp houses might sell a few hundred or a few thousand copies of a given title, we might sell ten times as many. That doesn’t mean our books are better than theirs, but it does mean they reach more readers.

Michael: Where did the name Hard Case come from?

Charles: We were originally going to call the line “Kingpin Crime,” but the day before we went to register the trademark, Aaron Spelling grabbed it for a short-lived TV series he did about a drug kingpin. So that name was out. We came up with a long list of alternatives and Hard Case Crime was the one we liked best. But Max had already drawn the logo by then and we liked it, so we kept it even though it no longer made as much sense with the new name. The crown above the gun was there because of “Kingpin.”

Michael: Which one Hard Case title do you recommend for someone who’s never read one of your books?

Charles: Oh, there are so many possible starting points! You could start with a book by one of our most prolific authors, such as Lawrence Block (maybe the book that kicked off our whole line, Grifter’s Game), or Donald Westlake (maybe his Richard Stark title, Lemons Never Lie), or Max Allan Collins (maybe his brand new collaboration with Mickey Spillane, The Consummata). Or maybe you’d start with one of our books that have won awards – maybe Domenic Stansberry’s The Confession, which won the Edgar, or maybe Max’s book Fade to Blonde or my own “Richard Aleas” title, Songs of Innocence, both of which won the Shamus. But you know what? The title of ours that pretty much always works – the one that everyone who reads it loves – is Charles Williams’ A Touch of Death. That’s just a sure-fire winner. So maybe I’d start there.

Michael: Let’s say someone has enjoyed every Hard Case title available and is still craving more like it. What classic pulp would you suggest he or she read or listen to that would be comparable to yours?

Charles: Well, they’re certainly not going to go wrong with the limited, but very high quality, selection that Vintage still puts out under the Black Lizard name: Chandler, Hammett, Cain, Ross Macdonald. Or if you like one of our books you might hunt down other titles by the same authors. You liked our Lawrence Block books? Pick up his Matt Scudder books from Morrow and Mulholland – they’re outstanding. You liked Lemons Never Lie? University of Chicago Press has a whole line of the other Richard Stark books. Another choice, of course, is to start tracking down copies of the actual old paperbacks from the ‘40s and ‘50s on eBay and AbeBooks, but that way lies collecting madness…

Thanks so much to Charles for talking to me. Time to get reading!

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