WILLIAM ARD: TENDER WRITER

IN A TOUGH WORLD

 

by Francis M. Nevins

 

 

Return with us now to America in the 1950s.

Blacklist. Witch hunts. An endless and senseless war. The dawn of TV. Endless pressures to conform. In the world of the private eye novel, the big drummer was Mickey Spillane. Boy, that Mickey Spillane! enthused the protagonists lunkhead drinking buddy in Paddy Chayefskys MARTY. He sure can write! Well, maybe he couldnít write but he sure could sell, and every other writer of PI novels was under intense pressure to follow the Mickís lead. A few  young men had the guts to say No and march to the beat of their own drums. The finest of these and the one most admired today was Ross Macdonald. But there were others who are forgotten now but deserve better. One of the finest of these was William Ard.

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William Thomas Ard was a Brooklyn boy, born on July 8, 1922. He took ROTC courses while a student at Dartmouth and, after graduating in 1944, went into the Marines. An accident that severed some tendons in his right hand kept him out of combat and he was discharged before the end of World War II. He returned to Brooklyn, moved in with his parents and worked briefly for a local detective agency. Then he got a copywriterís job with the Buchanan Advertising Agency, whose office was in Manhattans Paramount Building. He fell in love with a young woman named Eileen Kovara who worked at the agency and married her in 1945. Ardís next job was as a publicity writer for the New York offices of Warner Brothers Pictures. He was eventually promoted to head of his department but quit around 1950 to become a free-lance writer. By that time the Ards had two small children, a daughter and a son, so that economic necessity reinforced Ardís natural bent to write swiftly and much. For the rest of the decade he produced an average of a book every four months, the vast majority in the private eye and hardboiled genres. The family lived first in Brooklyn, then in Scarsdale and New Rochelle, N.Y., before moving in 1953 to Clearwater, on the west coast of Florida which served as the setting for many of his later works. At age 37, and after turning out 32 books, all of them typed with two fingers, Ard died of cancer on March 12, 1960.

In the half century since his death heís been almost completely forgotten, and the leading reference works on crime fiction mention him not even in passing. Yet while he flourished he was considered one of the top private eye writers in the business. Anthony Boucher, mystery critic of the New York Times throughout Ardís creative life, praised him over and over for his deft blend of hardness with human warmth and quiet humor, for the way he kept his novels gratifyingly distinct from each other, and each one better than the last, for producing masterpiece[s] of compressed narration . . . backed with action and vigor, written with style and individuality. Ard, Boucher wrote in 1955, is just about unmatched for driving story-movement and acute economy.

In the early 1950s, when the dominant model for hardboiled writers was Mickey Spillane, Ard and a few others, most notably Ross Macdonald, resisted the pressure to imitate the surefire blend of sadism-snigger-and-sleaze in Spillaneís Mike Hammer novels and carried on the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, in which the private eye stands for personal and political decency, legitimate violence abounds but sadism is eschewed, sex is not a savage perversion but a restoration of oneself and a friendly caring for another. The writer most influential for Ard, however, was neither Hammett nor Chandler but John OHara, whom he mentions several times in his novels and from whom he apparently derived his simple yet vivid style, his habit of flashing back to explore various characters social and economic origins, and his theme of dropping ethnicity (like stockbroker Louis Graziano/Gray in .38, gang boss Charlie Wilenski/Wilson in DONT COME CRYING TO ME, and vice cop Gordie Welliwicz/Wells in HELL IS A CITY) to achieve success.

 What makes Ard unique is that despite his recurring use of dark alleys, gangsters, crooked cops and pols and sinister roadhouses and all the other standard mean-streets story ingredients, his heart was elsewhere, in the world of movies and stage musicals and Broadway nightspots and music, the world of popular entertainment. He loved that way of life and all who lived it and in novel after novel he bathed its every aspect in a soft romantic glow. The same romanticism permeates Ardís series characters, particularly private eye Timothy Dane, a shamus like no other in fiction: young, naive, always tender with women, incompetent at machismo, incapable of extricating himself from tight spots single-handed, resorting to violence rarely and never in a sadistic way. There is about Dane a sweetness, a delicate simplicity whose very incongruity in a fictional PI somehow makes it work. In the Fifties, before Ross Macdonald replaced Spillane as the dominant influence and a sense of decency in a sour world became part of the eyes standard equipment, Ardís approach was a startling and sorely needed corrective.

Not that he was a paragon of all the literary virtues. He wrote rapidly and revised less than he should have if at all. His style is readable and efficient but his work lacks the hauntingly memorable, marvelously quotable lines that are common in Chandler and Macdonald. Despite his gifts of pace and economy and his unusual story premises, his plots have a tendency to fall apart, especially when he plays with the motifs of classic detective fiction. He seemed to have a mental block that made him forget the character names he had used in one book and recycle them unwittingly a few books later, so that Stix Larsen, a gangster killed in .38 (1952), is revived in THE ROOT OF HIS EVIL (1957) and again in ALL I CAN GET (1959), and Wes Shell, a Florida orchestra leader in MR. TROUBLE (1954), morphs into a Manhattan political columnist in HELL IS A CITY (1955). Sometimes a characterís name changes halfway through the same book! But even Ardís worst efforts are infused with raw readability, and his best are among the finest hardboiled novels of the Fifties.

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 The last publisher to issue an Ard series was Monarch Books, a short-lived paperback house based in Connecticut and specializing in titillation. Between 1959 and 1962 Monarch issued seven sleazy-covered novels under the Ard byline, six of them starring private eye Lou Largo. Despite the lurid jacket copy and artwork, the genuine Ard books in the group bear all the hallmarks of his world.

 Except for a Marine background paralleling his creators, Largo is simply Timothy Dane under an alias, a Manhattan PI with a curiously gentle personal style, a Times Square office, a rented apartment in a converted brownstone, a host of acquaintances in the entertainment world, and a penchant for cases that take him to the Florida west coast after one of whose towns he was named. The two authentic Largos are marked by motifs from Hollywoodís screwball sex comedies, an interest in characters social and psychological roots, insightful glances at underworld politics and the corrupt politics of the upperworld, cinematic crosscutting between scenes, and an occasional incident or bit of dialogue that reminds us irresistibly of Ardís sideline as a writer of Westerns under the name Jonas Ward. Although not in the same league with the Timothy Dane series, they are unmistakably from the same pen.

In the first and better of the pair, ALL I CAN GET (Monarch pb #124, 1959), Largoís client is Milt Weston, the crusading, incurably romantic New York newspaper editor who had been a major figure in HELL IS A CITY, and the detectives assignment is to check the background of a sex goddess whom Weston has just met and now wants as his eighth (or perhaps, depending on certain legal technicalities, his ninth) wife. As Largo contrives to meet, rapidly becomes enchanted by and starts bedding this lusty wench, we are treated to one-third of a bookís worth of Hollywood-style sex comedy unadulterated by the slightest criminous interest. Then Weston takes his fiancťe to Gulfside, Florida and instantly becomes embroiled in a newspaper circulation war, the murder of a local sheriff, and rivalry between the Cuban gangsters and the Mafiosi across the Bay Bridge in the corrupt city of Tampa. Largo is hired to come down and take a hand, and the books final hundred-odd pages turn into a fast-paced, action-crammed cornucopia of customary Ard motifs, graced with a neat detective subplot, spiced by the continuing sex-comedy scenes with which the ongoing crime story is ludicrously incompatible, climaxed by a shootout between an honest and a crooked deputy sheriff that might have come straight out of a Jonas Ward oater. This may not be great literature but its a splendid piece of storytelling that still holds up well today.

In LIKE ICE SHE WAS (Monarch pb #147, 1960) Largo is to some extent Hammerized, being portrayed as a compulsive gambler, a raging bull in brawls and beds, a macho immune to torture and bullets, but underneath these trappings he retains much of the gentleness of the Ard hero. Hired by a professional gambler to recover a million dollars in dirty Canadian money which he claims was stolen from him two years before by a Quebec prostitute and her pilot boyfriend, Largo follows the trail to Saratoga and an excess of sadistic encounters with various creeps who also want the money. The thin storyline is held together by guesswork and wild coincidence but the main emphasis is on Ardís unique brand of sex comedy, albeit with more explicit bedplay than usual, stemming from the juxtaposition of Largo and the Quebec hooker and his own temporary assistant, a wealthy young criminology student beneath whose prim exterior lurks an erotic tigress aching for release. An exciting race-against-time at the climax, plus some wonderful bit parts like the Jewish beatnik cabdriver and the ex-Marine deputy sheriff with a sideline as applejack bootlegger, are enough to remind readers of this quickie how good Ard at his best could be.

He died before he could write any more Largo books, but after his death Monarch editor Charles Heckelmann made a deal with the Scott Meredith literary agency for ghost writers whoíd continue the series under the Ard byline, with the ghost taking three-quarters of the proceeds and Ards widow 25%, minus of course Meredithís commission. Of the four ghosted Largos the first was written by the eventually-to-become-famous crime novelist Lawrence Block and the final three by John Jakes, whose later Bicentennial series netted him more fame and money than Ard had seen in his life.

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In the ten years between his debut as a writer and his death, Ard completed a prodigious amount of fiction: sixteen crime novels under his own byline, six Westerns as Jonas Ward and one as Ken Hamlin, plus nine crime novels under pseudonyms. Like his orthonymous books, the novels he wrote as Thomas Wills, Mike Moran and Ben Kerr reflect Ardís struggle to balance the ambience of 1950s hardboiled fiction with his own tendency to soaring romanticism, his desire to write in the tradition Mickey Spillane then dominated without losing his individuality. In the pseudonymous nonet one finds Manhattan and Florida settings, gambling casinos, boxing, crap games, political corruption, the sudden birth of sweet love in the back alleys of the big city, action and sex that never descend to sadism or smut. With one early exception they are marvels of storytelling economy, compressing a multitude of events into approximately the number of pages in a Simenon. Swift-paced, uncluttered in style, filled with casual references to the Marines and to the movies and other embodiments of Fifties pop culture, these books are well worth the attention of the Ard fan and of anyone who admires pure unputdownable readability.

Ardís sudden death of cancer in 1960, at age 37, silenced one of the most distinctive voices in American popular fiction of the Fifties. Since his death heís been all but forgotten, his books unreprinted, his career unmentioned even in fairly comprehensive reference works on mystery fiction. Now, thanks to Ramble House, some of his books are once again available for the benefit of readers who have never experienced his unique blend of mean streets and singular tenderness. Thatís a sweet romantic touch that I think he would have appreciated.