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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Charles Ardai

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To purchase Fifty-to-One

Title: Fifty-to-One
Author: Charles Ardai
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008
Length: 335 pages
Availability: Fifty-to-One - US
Fifty-to-One - UK
Fifty-to-One - Canada
  • With a gallery of all fifty Hard Case Crime covers
  • One (unidentified) chapter was written by Hard Case Crime co-founder Max Phillips

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable pulp romp

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       There's a lot to be said for a publisher concentrating on a specific kind of book, and in recent years we've been lucky in the new imprints that have popped up: not just literary fiction in translation as brought out by Archipelago Books or Open Letter, but also several that concentrate more on popular and crime fiction: Japanese pop fiction from Vertical, crime fiction in translation from Bitter Lemon Press -- and good old American pulp crime from Hard Case Crime (who must also be particularly commended for bringing their books out in the handy mass-market paperback size (not the unwieldy and unpleasant trade paperback format) -- only Green Integer and Pushkin Press do that (slightly) better).
       Fifty-to-One is the fiftieth installment in an impressive series, written by Hard Case-founder and editor Charles Ardai (who already penned two earlier volumes, under the pen name Richard Aleas). It is both homage to the series and enterprise as a whole -- each chapter taking the title of each of the previous Hard Case books, in sequence, for example -- and a very representative title. It posits a slightly different history for the firm, suggesting what might have been ... if Hard Case Crime had been founded fifty years ago, Ardai's earlier alter ego a slightly more unscrupulous (and desperate) man named Charley Borden. Not that that's the name he always goes by .....
       Homage and pastiche, it begins with an innocent arriving in New York city, eighteen-year-old Tricia Heverstadt hightailing it out of South Dakota as soon as she could. She figured she could stay with her sister, Cory, who had done the same four years earlier, at least for a start, but Cory just tells her to head straight back home. Tricia doesn't have much more luck when she accepts what seems to be the help of a friendly stranger, but that all eventually works out for the best, at least given the circumstances: she is hired on as a dancer and finds a place to stay.
       Charley Borden and Hard Case Crime are down the hall -- or, often as not, it seems, hiding among the ladies (on the run from Mickey Spillane the first time he pops up there). Always quick to seize an opportunity (and try to escape his obligations), Charley ropes Tricia into writing a book for him. She has literary ambitions anyway, and so she agrees to write a sensational true-crime account of the doings at the nightspot where she works, which is owned by mobster Sal Nicolazzo.
       Unfortunately, Tricia doesn't see anything shady going on behind the scenes -- but: "not having any true crime to write about was not going to stand in her way". She writes her mob story, and highlights it with the heist that gives the book its name: I Robbed the Mob !, detailing a three-million-dollar heist straight under Nicolazzo's nose. Only she and Charley soon find they have a big problem when it turns out someone has pulled exactly that job -- and Nicolazzo is certain they were in on it and know where the money is, since her book reads like a blueprint of how it was pulled off.
       Did someone read the manuscript and simply follow the plan outlined there ? That's what it looks like, and soon enough Tricia and Charley are on the run from the mob (and, soon enough, the police) as they try to track down the people who might have been involved.
       With more than a fair share of chases, close calls, narrow and other escapes, and nasty confrontations, Fifty-to-One heaps on every pulp twist most readers will have ever encountered. Ardai keeps the action going pretty much non-stop -- though at around a hundred thousand words it leaves everybody involved (from characters to the reader) way out of breath, and one understands why most pulp fiction is only about half this length.
       The twists and turns can leave you slightly queasy, as the book lurches all around New York city (and even briefly into international waters), and there are a few too convenient coincidences, but for the most part it is an enjoyable ride. The solution as to who really was responsible for the heist doesn't come as that much of a surprise, but that's okay, it's the false trails and suspects and motives along the way that make for most of the fun.
       Fifty-to-One is obviously also something of an inside joke, with Hard Case Crime references and allusions galore. From the use of the titles of the books in the series as chapter titles to much more subtle nods throughout the book it makes for an impressive homage, with just the right light touch of not taking itself too seriously.
       It helps a lot that Ardai knows what he is doing, pulp-wise, too: he knows how to pull this off, and does, nicely, with some very solid writing and lot of nice pulp flourishes. There's the game of the title, for example. As the mob man explains:

"But come back quickly, my dear. Or I'll grow impatient with canasta and teach him another game I like. It's called 'Fifty-to-One.' Those are the odds, you see."
     "Of winning ?" Borden said, clearly relieved no longer to have a switchblade quivering at his neck.
     "Of surviving"
       Ardai does the pulp-patter well, and the vivacious Tricia is an appealing heroine (though perhaps a tad too good (and Nancy Drew-like) to be true; the sleazier Charley or her fallen sister feel truer to the genre). And there are some nicely observed bits all along the way, aside from all the action -- like the unlikely club doorman in top hat:
His fighting days looked to have ended around the time of Carnera, if not Dempsey, and he glared at anyone entering the building as though nursing a deep resentment that boxing attendance hadn't come to a halt the day he left the sport.
       Though it can feel overfull, the chases and hunts going on a bit too long, Fifty-to-One is very enjoyable pulp ride -- almost a best-of collection in a single story. Good fun, and a good book. But what will they do for volume one hundred ?

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Fifty-to-One: Reviews: Charles Ardai:
  • Profile in Columbia College Today
Other books by Charles Ardai under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Charles Ardai is the founder of Hard Case Crime.

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© 2008-2009 the complete review

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