Recently, I received a splashy invitation to the kind of event that a genre-bender like me can’t refuse.  The location of the festivities was the Explorers Club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  I couldn’t wait to see the headquarters of the organization “promoting exploration and field sciences since 1904.”  The facilities are gloriously appointed, outfitted with mementos of treks and adventurers.

I found myself arriving among a group of those historically costumed from the 19th century, noir sharpies and dames, and others who were just plain swanky.

I was woefully underdressed, better suited for gardening than the storybook roof garden.  However, hiding behind my camera and my duty to report on such wonders as greeted me, I rose above.  Almost.

Naomi Novik’s a popular novelist now, but has always been an ardent fan, happy to explain how her experiences in sff fandom and fan fiction helped build her chops as a writer.  In fact, as an ongoing advocate, she’s also head of the board of the Organization for Transformative Works which dedicates itself to enabling fan works and preserving fan culture.

Charles Ardai (pictured here left of the eminent crime editor and bookseller Otto Penzler) founded and edits Hard Case Crime with partner Max Phillips.  HCC has spent the last five years publishing backpocket noir, both new and rediscovered, by established masters and emerging authors, all emblazoned with original art covers and soaked in the classic pulp aesthetic.

 Novik and Ardai also happen to be married to each other, which shows a little familial greediness in the talent and accomplishment arenas, if you ask me.  A quote of Franz Kafka’s that warms my contrarian heart is: There are some things one can only achieve by a deliberate leap in the opposite direction.  Both of these authors have looked backward to step forward, leveraging deep appreciations of what came before them to inspire imaginative new works and enterprises.  Philosophical claptrap over.  More party!

I insisted upon boring several fascinating people with questions and blather. 

The diversions of such conversations would’ve been enough for me, but there was more.

The delightful chanteuse in chartreuse is Gigi La Femme a burlesque entertainer who treated us to steamy classics.  Another venue or date might find these cosplayers in other roles, but on this evening, a historically-minded group of Novik’s friends from sff fandom assembled to dance, among others, a reconstruction of the Royal Scotch Quadrilles.

From Susan de Guardiola, a social dance historian and instructor, I learned quadrilles were introduced to England from France in the 1810s.  The dances for eight people in a square are the descendants of the French cotillion and the immediate ancestors of modern square dances. 

The figure performed above, which I understand to be infamous among those in the know, occurs within a dance reconstructed by Susan using 19th century dance manuals.  But the choreography isn’t the only reconstruction.  Most of these costumes of the period c. 1800-1815 weren’t purchased, but rather, were carefully researched and made by the wearers. Cool.

I assume the newest adventure hero, Gabriel Hunt, is the buck in the bandolier whose hands wrap a terrified beauty and a blazing handgun.  What I know for sure is that Hunt’s “a modern-day explorer whose globetrotting travels in search of legendary lands and dangerous artifacts take him from the mansions of Manhattan to the most remote corners of the Earth, and from the clutches of fiendish villains to the arms of the world’s most beautiful women…”  Up your alley?  Mine, too.  This pulp series, to debut in 2009 aims to revive adventure as Hard Case Crime’s done for noir, creating fresh titles in the tradition of H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Doc Savage.

According to Ardai, though all the titles will bear the same author’s name, the contributing pseudonymous writers will vary, and he’s got some biggies already lined up.  I asked him whether each adventure would end with a cliffhanger to be resolved at the beginning of the next, like a Flash Gordon serial.  He said it wasn’t planned that way, but things were yet evolving.

As a fan, and a person who enjoys favorite authors making joyful trouble for each other, I think it would be a scream to have each writer have to start by excavating Hunt from whatever quicksand was drowning him and to let each end with the flourish of another awful peril.  An exquisite corpse under every cover.  In any case, I’ll be very interested.

One thing that seems consistent with the HCC imprint is Ardai’s and Phillips’s dedication to great original art.  One table was covered with all 50 titles for admiring perusal, much like the spread painted on the cover of Fifty-to-One, clever monkeys.  The blurbage amplifies:

Celebrating 50 years of Hard Case Crime!  Okay, not really, But what if, instead of having been founded 50 books ago, Hard Case Crime had been founded 50 years ago, by a rascal out to make a quick buck off the popularity of pulp fiction?  Such a fellow might make a few enemies—especially after publishing a supposed non-fiction account of a heist at a Mob-run nightclub, actually penned by an 18-year-old showgirl with dreams of writing for The New Yorker.  With both the cops and crooks after them, our heroes are about to learn that reading and writing pulp novels is a lot more fun that living them…

Always willing to look into a mirror with a mirror, I think it reads like a good time, and the Nov 25th release will also have a centerfold gallery of all 50 covers.  While looking over the lovelies, I spoke to one of the artists, Greg Manchess, responsible for Zero Cool among other covers.

ow, there are exception in the world of mystery, and some of the smaller and trade publishers make beautiful and interesting books, but if a big publisher’s going to have to pay a designer or illustrator anyway, can we get something besides HUGE LETTERING with the possible addition of a tiny cartoon emblem?  Perhaps it’s because sff titles so often depict realities which don’t exist (yet).  Artists get to spread their wings more (no dragon pun intended) to create entire leitmotifs and overall designs that are unique and desirable.  SFF covers are intended to draw you into the story’s premise, into its world. Perhaps crime fiction tends to assume you’re already there.

However, if there aren’t going to be better, less bland layouts, nicer fonts and chapter breaks, an overall juicier experience from the physical object, what’s the advantage over digital again?  Commercial crime fiction’s so busy trying to brand the single-title author’s name in readers’ minds that every cover begins to look the same.

Parenthetically, I’m not that surprised to hear people complaining that they’re reading the same, too.  Author and title, one on the top half, one on the bottom, in some bold style of lettering spaced to dominate the whole surface, leaving just enough room for a tiny other something that hovers indistinctly in the background or clings like a tick to an edge.  It might be a blood droplet, spider of cracked glass, vial or syringe, handgun, child’s toy, misty city skyline, or (gack) more crime scene tape.  And traditionals?  There’s a limit to the visual puns on “death” and “murder”, and very few seem to be trailblazing anymore. Overly simplistic cartooning may be part of the reason so-called cozies don’t get any more respect than the cursive-laden, pink-covered chick lit.  Respect from non-readers of the genre isn’t worth chasing, but I buy and read from all of these genres and a bunch of other goofy ones, too.  I am hereby parched for interesting, creative approaches to packaging crime stories!

That’s a good party for you.  Neat stuff to see.  People to talk to. Stuff to think about afterward.

Please share your opinions on any of the ill-founded opinions expressed above.