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Charles Ardai: Hard Case Shows a Soft Spot for Pulp
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for Broadcasting and Cable and tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our first guest today, Charles Ardai, is both an author and a publisher. His recent mystery novels "Songs of Innocence" written under the pen name Richard Aleas, just won a Shamus Award as Best Paperback Original. Charles Ardai published that novel and many others under his personal imprint Hard Case Crimes, printing not only his books but new books by other authors and re-releases of obscure novels by classic writers. Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, Lawrence Block, all and more are featured in the Hard Case Crimes line up. And all books are published the way pulp mystery novels used to be, in paperback with lured covers of sexy women and tough looking gumshoes. Charles Ardai founded Hard Case Crime after selling his internet company, Juno, in 2001. Next month, Hard Case Crime will publish its 50th book, Ardai's "Fifty-to-One." Terry spoke to Charles Ardai, a.k.a. Richard Aleas, earlier this year after his novel "Songs of Innocence" was published.
TERRY GROSS: Charles Ardai, welcome to Fresh Air. I'd like to start with the reading from "Songs of Innocence." But would you set it up for us first?
Mr. CHARLES ARDAI (Mystery Writer, Publisher): Absolutely. "Songs of Innocence" is the sequel to a book called "Little Girl Lost" about a private investigator named John Blake. And at the end of that book, he quits his job and goes back to school because of a terrible crisis he goes through in the first book. In the second book, he never intends to back into investigation until a friend of his, Dorie Burke, is found - apparently have killed herself. It was an apparent suicide. And he's so distraught because of this that he takes it on himself to investigate, to find out what happened, because he doesn't believe it was a suicide. He thinks it was murder.
(Reading): She hadn't killed herself, not because she wouldn't have; she'd talked about suicide plenty, we both had. It's what unhappy people who were ashamed of their past and not too sure about their future did. I wasn't proud of it, neither was she, but you know what better to talk about it than to do it. And that was the promise we've made each other, if one of us ever felt like doing it, seriously, felt that way, we'd called the other and talk it out instead.
I've never gotten to that point myself, but she had more than once, and she'd called me every time, but not this time. And she would have. She would have. Then there was the other half of the deal. She promised me she'd called me first and in return I promised her that if I was ever unable to talk her out of it, and she ever went ahead and killed herself, I promised I'd come there and clean the place out. Get rid of any trace of her professional life so her mother would never have to know, and her father too for that matter, neither of them would have to read in their paper that their little girl had paid her rent by performing sexual services for a $180 an hour plus tips. No, not that. Just that she was dead, which God knows, would be so much easier to take.
GROSS: And that's my guest, Charles Ardai, who writes under the pen name Richard Aleas from his latest book "Songs of Innocence" which is published on his press, Hard Case Crime. The idea of suicide is the center of the reading that you just did, and it's a constant through the book. Why did you want suicide to kind of hang over the whole book?
Mr. ARDAI: John Blake is an atypical character as the lead in a hard-boiled detective story because he's not six feet two, he's not an ex-Marine. He's very much the opposite. He's a small, slender, intellectual fellow with glasses. And for him to have gone to the traumatic events of the first book, "Little Girl Lost," would have scarred him. And before I sat down to write "Songs of Innocence," I was trying to decide what the second chapter in his life might be like, and the obvious answer was that somebody of his emotional make up would be scarred. And it seemed more interesting to me to begin with him on a precipice and see if I can push him over the edge, than to have him shrug off some pretty grim events in the earlier book.
GROSS: And he just keeps being in more and more pain. He starts out with a broken rib that's bandaged from the previous book.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And so he starts out with a bandage, you know, chest and a broken rib. And then he just keeps getting into more - he get - keeps getting more and more physically and emotionally wounded as the book goes on. And these aren't wounds that he had kind of brush off. He's not - he's not tough inside. He's very vulnerable. Why did you want to make your main character as vulnerable as he is?
Mr. ARDAI: If you look at the hard-boiled novels dating back to the pulp era, they really fall into two categories. There are the angry ones, which are sort of wishful films at novels, Mike Hammer stories and the super tough fellow who punches out the bad guys.
And then there are the sad ones, and I find those more interesting, more compelling, the person who is walking wounded, the person who is facing a bad outcome and knows it, and fights against it just because that's what you have to do, that's what it means to be human.
Cornell Woolrich, who was one of the most troubled writers of the period, he wrote "Rear Window" for which he's best known, but also dozens of other books, all of them very bleak. And he led a very bleak life himself, described noir at one point, the field in which he wrote, with an image that he had remembered seeing as child. He said, it's like being an insect under an overturned glass and it tries to climb up the side, and it can't, and it can't, and it can't. And that's the story of Thomas Hardy's characters, it's the story of Greek tragedy, and it's the story of modern war fiction. It's what I find most appealing and most interesting about the crime fiction field.
GROSS: And you studied literature in college at Columbia. What did you study?
Mr. ARDAI: Well, I was specialist in British romantic poetry, which you can imagine made my mother very happy because she saw all sorts of employment possibilities. But this was...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ARDAI: Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake, Coleridge. And when I decided to create a detective character, it was almost inevitable that in a field that had detectives name Spencer and Marlow, I would have to pick one of my favorite poets, so he's John Blake, which I guess is really two of my favorite poets because John is from Keats. And "Songs of Innocence" drives a lot of its - the chapter opening quotations and so forth from Blake.
Whether that really influences the kind of writing I do, I don't know. I certainly don't write in the style of the romantics, except in one sense, which is that the romantics were responding to an earlier period of poetry where the language was very elevated and it was not the language of what Wordsworth said, a man speaking to man.
The same thing was true in mystery fiction in the 30s, the golden age of mystery fiction. You had people like Dorothy Sayers, who wrote about murder in terms of poison in "The Tea" and "Death in the Vicarage." It wasn't really the world of violence as people knew it. After World War II, you saw the sudden explosion of the hard-boiled movement, which was people talking in the vernacular, and scenes of violence, the way they were actually experienced. You had Chandler and Hamlet and so forth. And so, there is a sense in which the hard-boiled movement and the romantic movement were not completely different, although that's probably the only sense.
GROSS: You know, you mentioned William Blake, and your characters named John Blake, and your title of a latest book "Songs of Innocence" is a reference to Blake's "Songs of Innocence" in experience. And as you said, most of the chapters start with a quote from a Blake poem. And one of them starts with this quote, "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires." That's from Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," and without giving away what happens, it's a great quote for that chapter, couldn't have done better. But I should mention that on the cover, you have cover blurb on the book. You know, that sums up what part of the book is about. It's a similar impulse that you're describing but in more hard-boiled language, and the quote on the cover of the book is, "Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained."
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ARDAI: Isn't that great? It sounds like a hard-boiled line. Of course, all of the books in the Hard Case Crime line feature beautiful women on the cover and tough taglines. That tagline is also taken from the "Marriage of Heaven and Hell."
GROSS: Is it really?
Mr. ARDAI: Yes, that's Blake as well.
GROSS: Oh, good, it sounds so hard-boiled, yeah.
Mr. ARDAI: But it sounds so properly hard-boiled. Yeah, so, the "Marriage of Heaven and Hell" speaks in the words of the devil, although it's not clear at any point whether you're supposed to be sympathetic or horrified by them. And they've haunted me ever since I first encountered them studying under Carl Crober(ph), who's a brilliant, brilliant academician and scholar, who I quoted in fact as the epigram or is it epigraph, I never remember which it is, but the little quote at the front of the book. He introduced me to Blake and was the reason that I spent most of my Columbia career studying romantic poetry and inspired me in that respect.
In the "Marriage of Heaven and Hell" you have some pretty stark statement and when you say, "Sooner murder and infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires," that's not necessarily an endorsement of child murder. It may simply be an endorsement of not allowing your desires to go unacted. All it says is that killing children is not quite as bad, doesn't mean it's not bad.
But for purposes of my novel, it seemed as though it will be a good way to encapsulate the problem that some fathers have with their children. I won't go further than that because I don't want to spoil it, but there are reasons here that it may not be the best thing in the world to be the child of a parent who has trouble restraining his desires.
GROSS: Let me read your description of your detective John Blake from your latest novel. He writes, "When I turned 18, I look 15. At 25, I was still getting carded. Now, I was 31 and could order a drink without proving my age, but people still looked at me in my slight frame and my glasses, and my central casting part-on-the-left Iowa cornfield hair. And they saw someone they didn't have to cross to the other side of the street to avoid. It was a good thing sometimes. It made it easier to get strangers to open up, but it was also a bad thing sometimes. It all depends on what impression you're trying to make." Does that describe you physically?
Mr. ARDAI: Yeah, if only you have video on this radio, you could see a slight fellow with a big chin and straight hair parted on one side. It's not cornfield yellow, it's brown, but you know, some liberties must be taken. And I wear glasses and have since sixth grade so there is an awful lot of me in the physical description of the character, the emotional side, I think, we deviated around the age of 16 and I grew a slightly tougher skin than he did.
On the other hand, I didn't go through quite the ordeals that he went through, and who knows what would have happened if I had. But, yes, I think it was inevitable, it's true in many first novels that the detective has a striking resemblance to the author in one dimension or another. You know, Hammett was a detective himself, in the Continental office, in some ways a lot like Hammett. I don't think Philip Marlowe and Chandler resembled each other very much, except in his daydreams, but Blake and I do.
GROSS: I would imagine you really like the movie "Chinatown" because like in "Chinatown" - without getting too deep into this, like in "Chinatown," like the character of Jake Gittes, your character feels that when he tries to help somebody, he inadvertently ends up getting them hurt.
Mr. ARDAI: That's right. The terrible thing about John Blake is that he is really awful at what he does, but he means so well. He is not awful because he is inherently incompetent, it's just life conspires against him and it turns out that every time he tries to help and it's always a woman, she winds up worse than before. Now, there is one woman in his life who seems to be doing quite well. And so there is that exception.
But generally, he finds these women, one of the characters describes them as birds with broken wings, and there is a question why he keeps gravitating towards that sort of person. But having found such people, he always tries to make things better and pretty much always makes them worse. But along the way, he is an interesting character to write about just because I try to flesh him out and give him a little bit of substance, which often the detective in a detective story doesn't have. Even if the other characters do, the detective is very often an uninvolved observer, and I really wanted in these books to make the detective the integral figure, you know, not just somebody who comes in and sees all the relatives and the bizarre family and observes them from a cold, detached distance but somebody who has a reason to be investigating this particular crime, to feel it deeply.
GROSS: You know, your character's taken over by depression, suicidal feelings, guilt, physical pain, you get into his head so well. You're a really successful guy and you've been very successful within an internet startup, you're still with a high tech firm doing quite well, which is what enabled you to start Hard Case Crime. Do you relate to your character's sense of guilt and despair, and physical and emotional pain?
Mr. ARDAI: I do, and it's largely because of a childhood that was quite grim. It was wonderful in the sense that it was a terrific middle-class New York childhood, and I grew up in good circumstances so I can't criticize that. But I was the child, and I am the child of two Holocaust survivors, and so I was - the stories that they told throughout my childhood, no doubt, meaning well, were the most grim and frightening you can imagine. And knowing that, this little group of five people were all that remained of my family in the entire world pretty much, gave me a sense that there was a darker circle around a very small bit of light.
So, that was part of it. I did go through a period in my adolescence where leaping off the side of a building was relatively attractive. I didn't do it, I'm glad I didn't. I don't feel those ways today, but I do relate to it, and I think it's an interesting point of view to bring out in the book.
GROSS: You know, it's interesting that your parents told you stories about the Holocaust because I know that for some Holocaust survivors, their parents didn't talk about it and wouldn't.
Mr. ARDAI: It's true, and mine had a kind of mixed feeling about it. They felt, I think, that it was important to bring their children up with an appropriate amount of fear about the outside world because it's self-protective. On the other hand, there were details that they wouldn't tell us, and of course, that made it seem even worse, you know. We were trying to think, what could possibly be even more frightening than the stories we did hear. And then in recent years, I've been with my father who's about three years away from turning 80, and he and I had been talking, and he's finally opened up about some of the real details, and in fact they were worse than things they told us as children.
So, in some sense, I praise them for their ability to restrain themselves, but, you know, what they told us was bad enough. But on the whole, it makes it sound as though I'm unhappy that they did it. In fact, I wouldn't be who I am if they hadn't and I certainly wouldn't have written these books.
GROSS: What's an example of one of the stories they told you that you couldn't shake as a kid?
Mr. ARDAI: You know, there were two young boys who were relatives of my mother's, and at one point the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, which was the group that was affiliated with the German Nazi Party, was coming into Budapest, and there were a lot of people being killed. Some were fleeing, and they were fleeing to various locations where they thought they'd be safe, no guarantee, but they thought, but there were these two young children and their parents weren't there.
And my mother and her mother and her mother's father were trying to get them to come with them, and they said, look, your parents will find you. We will get your parents to you, but you've got to come now. And they said, no, no, we have to stay and wait for our parents. We were told we must wait for them. And they stayed, and they waited, and the Nazis came and shot them both. So, it's a good way to teach kids the lesson, always look out for yourself first.
GROSS: Does that story about your mother trying to rescue the kids who are later killed, does that relate to the kind of situation your main character is in, where he wants to rescue people but they end up being hurt, not through his hand, but what he does inadvertently leads to their damage or death?
Mr. ARDAI: I think the answer is yes. It's not so much that he is responsible, although in some cases he is, and often feels that way. It's that no matter how hard you try, you can't really alter a bad fate. That's part of what goes through these books, and I'm sure that does go back to that story and other stories of that sort that I have heard and told.
My mother at the time was completely powerless. She was their age, she was maybe six or seven years old. Her own mother was the one really trying to save them. And you can imagine the trauma she must have felt when she found out what had happened. As horrible as it is to go through that as an adult, can you imagine what it was like to see one of your peers, or two of your peers, gone in that way? So, yes, I do think that had an impact on it.
GROSS: Did your mother talk about guilt a lot?
Mr. ARDAI: Yes, and infused me with the same, but guilt is perhaps the least useful of human emotions, and yet one of the most prevalent. It is one of the paradoxes of our lives.
GROSS: You know, what you are saying about growing up with these really terrifying stories, and your parent making the point that you couldn't necessarily trust people or trust the world, it reminds me of the advice that your character's mentor tells him. And this is the guy who ran the detective agency where your character got his start and what he says is, the things people hire us to figure out are the ugliest things in the world. And you're writing about people who do the ugliest things in the world.
Mr. ARDAI: That's right, and in fact, if you look at some of the villains in the book, some of them get what's coming to them and some of them don't. There's a pair in the first book, "Little Girl Lost" named the Katchadourians(ph). They both have the same name, Murko(ph) Katchadourian, father and son. And the son is a sociopath and he does terrible things to people. He tortures them, really unnecessarily, and he has a terrible self-image. And walks into a bar once with a dice cup and he's rattling around what seem to be dice in it, but it's actually human teeth that he pulled from someone.
And in the end of the book he is free to go, and his father is free, and the worst people in the book are not the narrator who goes through some tough things and makes a very bad decision at the end, but he's not the worst person in the book. Clearly, this fellow with his dice cup full of human teeth is the worst person in the book, and nothing bad happens to him. I don't know what happens to him after the book, but it's quite clear to me that he is going on a vacation to Florida. He is having a great time. He may not be the happiest guy in the world, but he is certainly not punished.
And I think that is one of the interesting things in, not just in my own books, but this whole feel that corruption is not punished. Evil is not punished. Hard-boiled mysteries, and in particular, so-called noir mysteries, take place in a world where any little sliver of justice that you can carve out of an unjust world is practically accidental and something to be cherished because the bulk of what goes on in the world is going to be evil being unpunished.
GROSS: Your real name is Charles Ardai, but you write your hard boiled fiction under the alias Richard Aleas. And you spell Aleas A-l-e-a-s.
Mr. ARDAI: Yes, and there is a reason for that. It's an anagram of Charles Ardai and I didn't have another i in my name.
GROSS: Oh, I thought it was because it's an alias, so you named yourself Richard Aleas.
Mr. ARDAI: Yeah, I decided I was going to use an anagram. I have a passion for anagrams and I came up with 20 or 30 interesting anagrams like Rachel Darias and there were a few others - Richard A. Sale, but when I found out that I could make Richard Aleas, and it was almost the right spelling of alias, I just couldn't resist, so I used that.
For the book I am writing now, I'm using my real name, and I think people would be astonished to find that it's a comedy. I'm not really the sort of person who writes funny things, but I'm trying that as slightly different. So it would be ironic if under my real identity I was known for things that are funny and under my fake name, things that are serious.
BIANCULLI: This is Fresh Air, I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's conversation, from earlier this year, with Charles Ardai. He's the publisher and editor of Hard Case Crime, which reprints forgotten crime novels by great writers as well as publishing new crime fiction by established and emerging writers.
Ardai wrote two of those novels under the pen name Richard Aleas. Last week, his novel "Songs of Innocence" won the Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original. Ardai's next book, "Fifty-to-One" will be published next month. It will be a comedy, and celebrates a milestone for his publishing company, Hard Case Crime.
Mr. ARDAI: We are coming up on our 50th book, which is astonishing to me. When we started Hard Case Crime, I thought maybe we'd published six, seven, eight books, that's it. Because I didn't think that there would be a large audience for it, you know. Max Phillips and I who started the line together, loved these old books with the beautiful painted covers and the dark grim stories and suspenseful stories. But we figured there was a reason they had gone out of fashion in the 1950s and 60s, and there was probably a reason they weren't brought back.
So we created the line, and we hoped to reach a few thousand people who liked it, but we didn't expect it to last very long. Flash forward a few years, we're coming up on our 50th book, and the question was what can we do to commemorate it? So I came up with brilliant and insane idea, which was to write the 50th book myself, write it in 50 chapters, set at 50 years ago. And have each chapter bear a chapter title. You know, in the old books sometimes you see chapter one, "The Deadly Menace," chapter two, whatever. So here, it's chapter one "Grifter's Game," chapter two, "Faith to Blonde." And in each...
TERRY GROSS: â¦each chapter is the title of one of the books you've published?
Mr. ARDAI: In sequence. So now I have to come up with a story that makes logical sense of 50 random book titles consecutively. And it's turning out to be quite a challenge, although I'm having fun with it. But one of the ways I could do it was to turn into a comedy. In a comedy you have a lot more leeway to do things that are little wacky, a little bit funny.
GROSS: But I read that one of your principles with Hard Case Crime is nothing campy about hard-boil stuff.
Mr. ARDAI: That's right.
GROSS: It has to be the real thing.
Mr. ARDAI: That's absolutely right. So it's not campy. It's funny, but not campy. So if you read a book like "Say It With Bullets" by Richard Powell, that we published in the middle of our 50-book run, it's hilarious. It's full of one-liners that even 50 years after they were written or genuinely funny. It could be a Bob Hope movie, but it's not campy, it's not poking fun at the hard-boiled genre. It's very much of the genre, it's just that it has a wise-cracking main character.
That's very different from a book that has a guy in a slouched hat and a trench coat named, you know, something ironic, who runs into Raymond Chandler in a bar and says funny things to him. You know, we don't want to have a distance between our author and our narrator on one hand and events of the book on the other. We don't want to nudge the reader in the ribs with our elbow and say, isn't this cute? You know, you and I, we enjoy this old tiny stuff. We want to actually make these books that could've appeared in the day, and that's what I'm trying to do with the new book "Fifty-to-One." It's going to be set in 1958, and hopefully it's going to give the impression of genuinely being an artifact of that time, fact that it happens to be about the editor of the Hard Case Crime, who is an unrepentant con artist starting with the lie.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ARDAI: That's a whole other story. So I hope people find things to laugh at. His name is Charles, what do you want? You know.
GROSS: I'm laughing already.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: How did you become so passionate about hard-boiled fiction?
Mr. ARDAI: You know, I became passionate about hard-boiled fiction when I started reading the work of Lawrence Block as a teenager. I don't, of course, mean the work he wrote as a teenager, although I've since gone back and I think read some of that as well under pseudonyms. But Lawrence Block introduced me to the notion that you could go deep inside the head of a criminal and find a sympathetic perspective waiting there. You know, whether it's a murderer, a burglar, or somebody who does something terrible, you can understand why he does it. And for some strange reason he was one of the first writers who exposed me to that.
Then I found James M. Cain, then I found classical authors, I mentioned Thomas Hardy already, and I founded it a very eye-opening experience, so I immediately gobbled up all the books I could find. Most of them, of course, weren't on the level of Block, never mind Hardy. But I found that there were many that were quite strong and they were published for 25 cents behind very lurid covers, and you would think that they were disposable entertainment, and they were entertaining, but they really weren't disposable.
And at one point, Max Phillips and I sat down and talked about how to un-dispose of this literature. How do we bring back the work of authors like Day Keene or Gil Brewer, who don't have the fame that a James M. Caine still possesses or a Raymond Chandler, but wrote perhaps only one book in their lives that was on par with the "Big Sleep" or on par with the various work of these canonical authors. But they did write one, and there was no reason that that one book should be out of print.
GROSS: The books that you published have very lurid covers, and a lot of them are actually done by Robert McGinnis who did a lot of lurid covers for pulps back in the pulp fiction era. How did you find him and convinced him to do covers again?
Mr. ARDAI: There's a young painter who's phenomenal named Glen Orbik, and we hired him to do some covers, and he said in passing when we were talking about his inspirations, oh, you know, Robert McGinnis is still painting, and I was astonished. I knew Robert McGinnis was still alive, but I had no idea that at age 79 or 80, he was still painting professionally.
And I got in touch with him. I said, Glen tells me that you're still painting. Would you consider possibly, maybe doing one cover for us, and he was enthusiastic to a degree I couldn't possibly have imagined. For example, when we assign a cover to a painter, typically we get back three or four sketches of things that the painter might propose. In the case of Bob McGinnis, he sent us 50 sketches for...
GROSS: Oh God.
Mr. ARDAI: Produced a playing card deck with one on each back, practically. And it was wonderful, and each was better than the last. He's an enormously gifted fellow, and he's a great virtuoso of talent, although he's best known for painting beautiful women, he's got a virtuoso ability to communicate textures. So when he paints a stone, it looks like stone and wood looks like wood and fur like fur. It's an incredible thing. He's justifiably in the hall of fame at the Society of Illustrators with Wyeth and others.
But he hadn't done book covers for a long time, or he hadn't done many book covers, so we were very glad to offer him that chance. He's now done, I think, seven or eight for us. We have one coming out soon by John Ferris called, "Baby Mall" for which he painted the cover, and it's a typically beautiful one, and of course, the first book I assigned him was my own because I'm shameless and I said I want a McGinnis cover for myself and so "Little Girl Lost" has a McGinnis, and then "Songs of Innocence" has an Orbik, so I bracketed it with the two of them.
One of the things that's interesting about McGinnis is that he spans the two generations, so it's a kind of benediction from the old pulp era to have him participate in our line. But the covers he does for us today have to be much more conservative, and we have to be much more careful. For example, you could have painted a completely naked woman on the cover of a book in 1958. You couldn't possibly get away with that in 2008. Oh, the angles would have had to hide anything too explicit in 58, but you could still play with the angles. Here, if a pair of pants is too low, we have to go back to him and ask him to pull it up. We actually had to do that on the cover of "Little Girl Lost." We said, they - they don't want what they called butt cleavage, and I never heard the term in my life, and said the buyer from Wal-Mart won't buy it if there's any butt cleavage in them.
GROSS: Is that mostly the reason why the standards have changed because, you know, the chain store is that...
Mr. ARDAI: Yes.
GROSS: Do so much of the sales and distribution?
Mr. ARDAI: Sadly, yes, and I don't think that they represent as large of a fraction of our sales as they do for some books, but if you want to have a million copy bestseller, you can't do it without - not just Barnes & Noble and Borders, who by the way have been very supportive of our line, and I'm very grateful. But Costco and Sam's Club and Wal-Mart, and they have standards that are their standards and you can't argue with them. You just have to decide whether you're going to abide by them or not. So at one point, I thought, you know, as our last hurrah if we ever shot the line down, I'd go out with a bang and have a really dirty cover.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ARDAI: And I haven't - I haven't done it yet.
GROSS: What did the lurid, sexy covers do for you when you were a teenager and first discovered them?
Mr. ARDAI: Well, I won't be too explicit about what they did for me, but I will say...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ARDAI: They did accomplish what they set out to do. You know, they were intended to separate a fool from his money. And you know, it started with pulp magazines, which were sold on newsstands, and there was a proliferation of them so extreme that at one point, if you look at photos of old newsstands from the 20s and 30s, you'll see cheek by jowl, perhaps 25 separate pulp covers. And in order to be the one that got the dime or got the quarter out of the kids or the adult's pocket, you had to up the stakes, and so you saw, you know, women in all sorts of undressed menaced poses with, you know, hooks and blades coming at them and so forth.
When we changed from pulp magazines to pulp paperbacks in the 50s, the lurid quality diminishes. Generally, you don't have the same implied or actual violence shown, but you still have a kind of sultry, sexy quality. And sure enough, those are the books that sold best. So you found that for about 10 years, Mickey Spillane was the one who set the standard with his Mike Hammer covers, but all the imitators similarly had women in negligees, women, you know, lower than the camera so that you could see down their dress - all the sort of tricks that the pulp magazines had used. And those covers have since become very popular collectors items on their own. You see people buying the books, and not reading them, just for the covers.
GROSS: One more thing, on the website for Hard Case Crime, you know, there's a page for each of the books with the cover and a description and there's - the lead is usually very hard-boiled and very...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Eye catching and kind of funny, like for "The Vengeful Virgin"â¦
Mr. ARDAI: Uh huh.
GROSS: The line is, her wealthy stepfather was dying, but not quickly enough. Do you write those yourself?
Mr. ARDAI: Oh yes, that's one of the great pleasures. The two greatest pleasures in putting this line together are not the high-minded things I've mentioned earlier, those are true also, but the great pleasures are working with the painters to turn a scene from the book into a beautiful painting and coming up with those cover lines. I just have a blast with that. There's one I did not come up with and it was the one from Max's book. He came up with that himself, and that's probably still our best, and I still keep trying to top it and failing. He wrote, she was a little taste of heaven and a one-way ticket to hell.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ARDAI: And that's just perfect.
GROSS: Charles Ardai, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. ARDAI: Thank you. It was a real pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Mystery author and publisher Charles Ardai speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. His company's 50th book and his latest novel, "Fifty-to-One" comes out next month.
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In Claxton's Death, A Photo Pioneer Lost
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
William Claxton, the photographer whose work included many iconic portraits and LP covers of famous jazz artists, died last week of complications from congestive heart failure. He was 80 years old. Claxton loved taking photographs, but also loved jazz music, car racing, and his wife of 49 years, model and actress, Peggy Moffett.
Each of those loves led to some famous photographs. His wife worked for fashion designer Rudi Gernreich in the early 1960s when Claxton photographed her wearing the first topless swimsuit for women. His love of car racing led to a close friendship with, and some great pictures of, actor and car enthusiast Steve McQueen. And as a teenager growing up in Southern California, Claxton hung out in jazz clubs, taking pictures and forging friendships. Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Mel Torme, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, all of them were photographed intimately and inventively by William Claxton. Photos which were collected in the book called, "Jazz: William Claxton" in 1988. That's when he spoke with Terry Gross.
TERRY GROSS, host:
There's a photograph of Bill Evans in which he's hunched over the piano. It's a very dark photograph, and really the only light is the light reflected off of his face, and his face is so bent over, it's nearly touching the keyboard that he's playing.
Mr. WILLIAM CLAXTON (Photographer): Yes, he was very concentrated. He didn't - he didn't even know I was there, I don't think. He was so concentrated on what he was doing but I know that's - I love that picture because you only see a - just a few slight features which is enough to know it's Bill Evans.
GROSS: You have a photograph of Thelonious Monk at the piano, and it's interesting to me, he's not making eye contact with the camera. It looks like he's not really looking at anything, that although his eyes are focused out, what he's really - just totally focused inward on what he's playing.
Mr. CLAXTON: Yes, well, that was in San Francisco, and it was a - we had to do a record cover. I had a photograph record cover, and we photographed a few things but the record company wanted - out of a cable car and that sort of thing, and finally I just said, let's stop and have lunch, so - and we had lunch, and he had quite a few drinks and got relaxed, and he said I know a hall we can go to and - a big, it was windless, a big empty hall. We just walked in. No one was around and he sat down and he was just wonderful. He just gave me a personal private concert right there but - and he had that sort of vacant stare because I think he was feeding what he'd had taken inside, and also just concentrating on his music.
GROSS: Were there a lot of very corny type of shots that were typical of jazz photographs that you really wanted to make sure you broke away from in your own work?
Mr. CLAXTON: Yes. During that period, or just prior to the period that I got involved, I always noticed that the in thing for quote "jazz photograph" was always harsh, harsh flashlights and very contrasting pictures, and lots of sweat and lots of distortion in the face of the musician while he's playing, and I didn't really see much of that. I walked into a recording session, everybody was sort of gentle and pleasant and soft lighting, and it established a whole different mood and feeling, both I guess, through my personality and how I saw it, and the way things were recorded out here in the west coast at the time.
GROSS: One of your photographs is a scene outside of the club, Birdland, the New York club, and a couple of people are walking into the club and standing outside of it is a saxophonist who I must say looks very strung-out, I don't know if he was or not. You said that the photograph was shot at four in the morning.
Mr. CLAXTON: Yes.
GROSS: Is there a story behind that photograph?
Mr. CLAXTON: Yes. I'm afraid that was a set-up shot.
Mr. CLAXTON: And I did it on purpose because I was trying to get - I was trying to get the mood of New York at the time and the feeling outside of Birdland, and there was always a lot of young, rather sad musicians hoping to get into Birdland either to listen or to play, or - and many haven't - couldn't even afford to get in and I noticed it all the time. So I had this young actor friend, a friend - a fellow named Ben Carroders(ph) and he just stood around and I photographed him. And to get that mood, it was characteristic of what happened outside of Birdland during the 50s.
GROSS: Oh, it looks very realistic even though it's a set-up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CLAXTON: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I'm going to ask you about another photograph.
Mr. CLAXTON: Mm hmm.
GROSS: You have a wonderful photograph of Charlie Parker surrounded by three of his fans, and he looks - he looks very happy, happy in a way that you don't usually see him in photographs. Has a big smile on his face, he looks very - very healthy, very well rested. What's the story behind that picture?
Mr. CLAXTON: Well, I'd heard of Charlie Parker, I'd never seen him. I was dying to see him, and this is also very, very early in my career. I was still going to school and I was living at my parent's house in Pasadena. And I'd heard that he was at the old Tiffany club down in Los Angeles. So I packed up my speed graphic camera, my four-by-five film plates, and dashed down there and spent the entire evening photographing him, and I got to meet him, and he was terribly nice.
And at the end of the evening, around two or three in the morning, several of his fans and he is - wanted to go have some food, and then we couldn't find an all-night restaurant, so I invited him to my parent's house in Pasadena, and they were out of town, and he spent the whole weekend with us with a little group of young people. And we just sat around and all listened to him talk and feeding him and taking care of him, and making sure he was happy.
GROSS: Did you take more photographs of him that weekend?
Mr. CLAXTON: Yeah. I took quite a few pictures. In fact, I always hate to talk about it once it got destroyed but I - we had a lovely swimming pool and it was a summer day, and at one point, I got a picture of him totally naked with just his horn standing on the diving board, smiling and playing and...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CLAXTON: That - I had a flood in my studio several years ago, and that picture disappeared.
GROSS: Oh, that's too bad.
Mr. CLAXTON: Yeah.
GROSS: I'm wondering if the musicians who you photographed, ever did things to protect things that they wanted to keep private, if they ever drew the line for you of what you could and what you could not photograph them doing.
Mr. CLAXTON: Oh, I think so, yeah. I think that I was always a discreet person that way, too. I think that if I saw anything going on that I'm sure a musician did not want to be photographed doing, I just didn't photograph it. I didn't - I put my camera down and, therefore, they didn't feel threatened by me. They knew I wasn't going to do that.
GROSS: I remember one musician, and I won't say who, telling me that on one of his album covers that he was actually very, very high when it was photographed, and he'd been really sick right before the picture was taken. So he was never really happy with...
Mr. CLAXTON: Yes.
GROSS: With his album cover, and I wonder if you ever went through something like that of photographing a musician knowing that they were not in good shape at the time the picture was being taken.
Mr. CLAXTON: Yes I have, quite often, in fact. But I never wanted to show anybody, and I still don't, in any sad moment. I don't like to see anybody, you know, especially a talented, creative person as they're, you know, nodding off asleep and under drugs. I get - I just don't have any reason to do that. If I did do it, I wouldn't want it to be published. But yes, I was around a great deal of that and when I was quite young, it was amazing that I survived a lot of that because I was experimenting myself.
GROSS: What do you think kept you from getting a habit yourself?
Mr. CLAXTON: Being so young and impressionable, I probably would have been tempted to try it, but I think it was my first trip to New York as a young person like 17 or 18 and being invited to a big party where I did see a very well known musician, at the time, shoot up and keel over and die right in front of me. And that just put the fear in me. I would never do such a thing to myself.
GROSS: Do you believe in photogenic? Do you think that certain people are more photogenic than others?
Mr. CLAXTON: Oh yeah, of course. I think that happens and some people respond to the camera much better than others. Aside from being photogenic - but like Gerry Mulligan, just innately knows what to do in front of a camera and still not be disturbed by your presence or what the lens, the person on lights, or cameras, and then, of course, Tedd Baker I guess is positively, maybe the most photogenic jazz musician of all time. I don't know. I could never take a bad picture of him.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us about your photographs.
Mr. CLAXTON: Well, thank you very much for asking me.
BIANCULLI: William Claxton speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. The photographer, famous for his pictures of jazz artists, died last week at age 80.
(Soundbite of jazz music)
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Fool Me Once: Stone's Oedipal 'W.' Lacks Depth
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
With George W. Bush's popularity at an all-time low, the last thing he seems to need is a biopic by Oliver Stone. The ads picture the film's star, actor Josh Brolin, on the toilet with his pants down. Stone's film also features James Cromwell as Bush Senior, and Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: You know things aren't going well for a Republican president when the best thing that happens to him in ages, is a biopic by the famously left-wing Oliver Stone, that depicts him, not as reprehensible as Michael Moore has, but an earnest boy-man with daddy issues. Stone's Bush doesn't grow in stature, but he means well. Let's give Stone points for trying to get into the head of W., played by Josh Brolin. The film is more effective for its measure of sympathy.
As in his biopics of Nixon and Alexander the Great, Stone comes not to mock, but to dramatize the nexus of personality and great power. If nothing else, W. is an honest effort. It's too bad it's lifeless, a rhythmless hash of flashbacks and teeny dialogue. Stone's focus is Oedipal, what he regards as Bush's downfall, the occupation of Iraq, is firmly rooted in W.'s relationship with his dad.
It's an accepted thesis predicted by Pete Hamill in an essay before W. was even inaugurated. Hamill said he was sure Bush would find a reason to finish off Saddam Hussein. A son in rivalry with a father, Hamill concluded, can be a very dangerous man.
The movie begins with planning for the Iraq invasion, then leaps back to show W. in college after a drunken binge, getting sprang from jail by his father, known as Pappy, played by James Cromwell. Pappy repeatedly calls Junior a disappointment, and draws unfavorable contrast with his brother Jeb. Allegedly, Jeb is in the movie, he's in the credits. But I don't recall it, so there's not juicy dialogue between the good and bad sons.
And while Cromwell has a fine patrician presence, the film's notion of George H.W. is rather colorless. Brolin, though, holds the screen. Early on, he's shown cramming food into his mouth and swilling beer, self-indulgent and over-entitled. After Bush losses a race for Congress, and has a born again experience, Brolin suggest a man wheeling in search of a self.
In the White House, his Bush is engaged, eager to surpass his father and angry when out of the loop. Here the cabinet gets news from a security official that no WMD's have been found in Iraq. Scott Glenn is Donald Rumsfeld, and Richard Dreyfuss plays Dick Cheney.
(Soundbite of movie "W.")
Mr. MICHAEL GASTON: (As General Tommy Franks) Things weren't panning out the way we thought they existed. And your national security advisers should have gotten into this, gotten the detail, and vetted them for you.
Mr. SCOTT GLENN: (As Donald Rumsfeld) Mr. President, I think we're being overly negative in a situation where indeed we lack the metrics to judge the overall success of the global war on terror.
Mr. RICHARD DREYFUSS: (As Dick Cheney) And my office sent to you spy satellite photos that showed that WMDs could be hidden in caves that you never responded to.
Mr. GLENN: (As Donald Rumsfeld) We analyzed those photos, Mr. Vice President, and they are actually trenchers, watering holes for cattle, not caves.
Mr. DREYFUSS: (As Dick Cheney) That's not what my people told me.
Mr. JOSH BROLIN (As George W. Bush) Plus you grew up in Wyoming, you should damn well know cattle! Well there you go, you fool me once, shame on you. Now fool me twice and you can't get fooled again.
EDELSTEIN: It's fun to see Dreyfuss as Cheney stick out his jaw and look at once direct and shifty. But that last speech, fool me once, is among the most legendary of all Bushisms, and was uttered at a press conference. Stone gets a laugh by putting it in front of the cabinet, but it doesn't jibe with what people who've met Bush say, that in private, he's in control of his language. It's only before the public and press that he has trouble synthesizing talking points.
Stone and the screenwriter, Stanley Weiser, don't get the difference between public and private speech which is why Glenn's Rumsfeld and Jeffrey Wright's incessantly skeptical Colin Powell have no surprising idiomatic dialogue. The movie is all talking points. "W." isn't compelling enough as drama, or witty enough to be satire. Diminutive Toby Jones, is a diminutive Karl Rove, with no evident relish for his job. And while Thandie Newton is a hoot as Condi Rice, she's a robotic yes woman. There's no hint of who this woman might be.
It's hard to know what went wrong with "W." Maybe Stone wants to change his image as a rabble-rouser and show his critics he has become more reflective and responsible. But his greatest attribute, and I say this as someone who's least favorite film of all time is "Natural Born Killers," has always been a certain lusty, blow-hard showmanship. In the midst of these tumultuous times, in the midst of this tumultuous election, Stone has delivered his shallowest, most tepid film.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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