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 protagonist’s lunkhead drinking buddy in Paddy Chayefsky’s MARTY. “He sure can write!” Well, maybe he couldn’t write but he sure could sell, and every other writer of PI novels was under intense pressure to follow the Mick’s 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 copywriter’s job with the Buchanan Advertising Agency, whose office was in Manhattan’s Paramount Building. He fell in love with a young woman named Eileen Kovara who worked at the agency and married her in 1945. Ard’s 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 Ard’s 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 he’s 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 Ard’s 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 like Ross Macdonald, resisted the pressure to imitate the surefire blend of sadism-snigger-and-sleaze in Spillane’s 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 O’Hara, 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 DON’T COME CRYING TO ME, and vice cop Gus Welliwicz/Gordie 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 Ard’s series characters, particularly private eye Timothy Dane, a shamus like no other in fiction: young, naïve, 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 eye’s standard equipment, Ard’s 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 character’s name changes halfway through the same book! But even Ard’s worst efforts are infused with raw readability, and his best are among the finest hardboiled novels of the Fifties.
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For my money HELL IS A CITY is by far the most powerful and exciting of Ard’s PI novels, pitting Dane against the forces of law and order in a nightmare New York where the mayor, the police commissioner and most of the officials are in a corrupt alliance with the mobs and determined to hang onto their power in the forthcoming mayoral election. When a young Latino shoots a Brooklyn vice squad cop who was about to rape the boy’s sister, the city bosses use their puppets in the media to portray the case as the coldblooded murder of a heroic officer and put out word to shoot on sight whoever might contradict the party line. Brought into the picture by a crusading newspaper editor, Dane at once finds himself in the position of the classic noir protagonist: knowing the truth, threatened by evildoers both with and without badges, hounded through city streets dark with something more than night. A gallery of sharply defined characters, breathless pace, an exceptionally strong premise and the evocation of Dane as a sleuth both more aggressive and brighter than in earlier novels combine to turn this book into a masterpiece. Well, almost a masterpiece. What keeps the book from a five star rating is its climax, perhaps the first televised criminal trial in fiction, where all is set to rights in record time and ludicrous manner. With a sensible ending, what a movie Sam Fuller could have made out of HELL IS A CITY!
This novel was never filmed, but if any reader of the last paragraph finds the springboard situation vaguely familiar from some old movie or other, there’s a reason. Ard liked that situation so much that he brought it back a year later when, under the byline of Jonas Ward, he began writing a series of paperback Westerns about a wandering gunfighter named Buchanan (after the ad agency for which Ard had worked in the Forties). The first in the series was THE NAME’S BUCHANAN (Gold Medal pb #604, 1956), a Westernized rewrite of HELL IS A CITY, with the hero once again trying to save the neck of a young Latino who’s going to be legally murdered by corrupt officials for shooting the man who was raping his sister. This book was the source for the only Ard-based movie. BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE (1958), starring Randolph Scott, preserved the novel’s structure but added countless quirky human touches that were typical of its director, the legendary Budd Boetticher.
In his final hardcover novel, AS BAD AS I AM (1959), Ard recycled his pet springboard situation yet again. Ex-convict Mike Fontaine discovers that his brother-in-law, plainclothes cop Harry Taggart, is on the take. Taggart tries to kill Fontaine but is himself shot to death in the struggle. Just as in HELL IS A CITY, the dead cop’s equally corrupt superiors form a politically motivated conspiracy to whitewash the officer, brand Fontaine as a mad-dog cop killer, and put out orders that he be shot on sight. This version lacks the power and nightmarish intensity of HELL IS A CITY but is better constructed. Its climax is set at a criminal trial turned media event but this time—except for Ard’s illusion that the Supreme Court is New York’s highest court rather than, as in fact it is, its lowest—the judicial proceedings are more credible.
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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 Ard’s 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.
Ard’s 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 he’s 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. That’s a sweet romantic touch that I think he would have appreciated.
Francis M. Nevins
St. Louis MO