Fifty-To-One – Charles Ardai

5 out of 5


I’ve not had as much fun reading a book as Fifty-To-One in… forever. Enjoyed books – absolutely. Been immersed in them; moved by them; surely entertained; all of the above. But the experience of being constantly tickled to smiles and laughs by a title – for 300+ pages! – while also getting the requisite kick from its quirky premise and pulp affectations is, indeed, a special one, and thus appropriately executed by writer Charles Ardai for the 50th publication by his imprint, Hard Case Crime. Fifty-to-One might admittedly stretch things a bit in order to fit its format, but the cleverness with which it’s pulled off, and Ardai’s slick narration, well makes up for that: there is no drag in actually reading it, whatsoever, even if a traditional plot outline would likely tell you to eschew some sections here and there.

And not qualifying the book as necessarily moving or immersive isn’t meant to be denigration: I feel like the title is mainly out to make for a good time, and at that it surely succeeds. At the same time, though, the skill Ardai has previously shown with characterization and dialogue (in his other works under pseudonym Richard Aleas) is fully intact, guaranteeing that there’s tons more here than just a shtick.

As to that shtick: Hard Case Crime, in the real world, has been publishing books for several years at this point, from pulp / crime authors new and old, in dime-store format with gloriously painted covers that harken page to the same. In Fifty-To-One, Hard Case Crime is a publisher of similar stuff, though maybe with a more smutty reputation, run by scheister Charles Borden, scheming plenty of other things at the same time as he’s peddling his books. But our main character is Patricia – Trixie – having moved herself to the big city of New York to be with her sister, Cora, but winding up essentially on the street instead. Naively swindled out of her cash within minutes of arriving, she eventually finds herself in Borden’s employ, writing a book anonymously that’s pitched as the truth behind a theft from a local mobster, made up wholesale by Trixie. …Unfortunately, the theft actually happened, and now Trixie (and Charles, and Cora, and others) are in the mix of police, wanting to know how the theft was done, and the mob, wanting their money back. The tale is told across fifty chapters, which each happen to have chapter names from each of Hard Case Crime’s fifty books. And yes, Ardai puts himself to the task of actually making those chapter names relevant.

It’d be cute if it wasn’t so clever at time, and then also laugh out loud silly: Ardai earns our faith in the format by legitimately winding his tale through those chapter names, but then also winkily cheats sometimes by calling a club or a horse or whatnot by the name instead. And to keep the style fresh and forward moving, though we’re tied to Trixie’s point of view – who’s a wonderful mover and shaker, thinking on her feet the whole while – the book finds smart ways to sidestep that and fill us in on what’s happening elsewhere.

I guess it’s possible some my arrive at this without the HCC context – like they’d previously seen praises for Aleas’ work, and followed that to this book – so it’s good that, as mentioned, the actual story here is still a winner. Though I’ll admit that it surely gets an extra boost of fun from knowing the publication, and especially having read some or all of its titles. The bonus gallery of HCC’s covers in this middle is the cherry on top.