by Francis M. Nevins

WILLIAM ARD Hell Is a City

   Something unusual happened to me on Thanksgiving morning and I’m thankful that it did. Browsing the Web for something entirely different (and apparently nowhere to be found), I stumbled upon a truly excellent website devoted to that unjustly forgotten Fifties hardboiled author William Ard, who managed to write something like three dozen novels before dying of cancer at age 37. With permission from website proprietor Dennis Miller, I hereby offer a link.

   Decades ago, when I was writing the essays about Ard for The Armchair Detective that earlier this year I reorganized into a chapter for my book Cornucopia of Crime, I had had some correspondence and phone conversations with his widow and son.

   Mrs. Ard, nee Eileen Kovara, was tremendously helpful, even loaning me her copy of one Ard novel I had never been able to locate on my own and have never seen since.


   I learned from Dennis Miller’s website that both had died since I was last in touch with them, but he and I began emailing and I soon had the cyber-address of Ard’s daughter and got in touch with her.

   Her father died destitute, she told me, and her mother had a hard time of it for many years, trying to support herself and two children on a secretary’s salary.

   I now know a lot more about the Ard estate than I knew before Thanksgiving, and I’m hoping to persuade a publisher I know who loves hardboiled and noir novels from the Fifties to reissue a few of Ard’s, especially Hell Is a City (1955) and Club 17 (1957, as by Ben Kerr). As they say in the news biz, more details later.


   In my last column I described how Fred Dannay, reprinting Dashiell Hammett’s first Continental Op story in EQMM decades after its first publication in 1922, tried to make it seem less like a period piece by inflating all the cash amounts and substituting common or garden variety bonds for the original version’s Liberty bonds, which the U.S. had sold to finance its entry into World War I.


   This seems to have been a recurring editorial habit of Fred’s, and not even Ellery Queen stories were exempt from its reach. In EQMM for March 1959 he reprinted “Long Shot,” a Queen short story first published twenty years earlier, but changed the names of most of the movie stars who attend the big horse race.

   Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo are fused into Sophia Loren, Al Jolson is replaced by Bob Hope, Bob Burns by Rock Hudson, Joan Crawford the second time by Marilyn Monroe, and Carole Lombard by Jayne Mansfield.

   The only star who appears in both versions of the story is Clark Gable.


   If I hang onto life and health long enough, one of the books I’d love to do is a volume of The Wit and Wisdom of Anthony Boucher.


   Here’s a prime candidate for inclusion, from a letter of his to Manfred B. Lee of the Ellery Queen partnership, dated February 9, 1951.

   As the Forties segued into the Fifties and network radio fell before the juggernaut of television, Boucher tried for months and perhaps years to establish a foothold in the new medium comparable to what he’d enjoyed in the middle and late Forties when he made hundreds of dollars a week (huge money in those days) providing plot synopses for Manny to expand into Queen radio scripts.

   He got nowhere, but his frustration led to a memorable one-liner. “TV is to radio as radio is to films as films are to theater as theater is to publishing as publishing is to rational behavior.”


   Boucher once remarked that readers either love Gladys Mitchell or can’t stand her. I haven’t read enough of her dozens of novels to identify myself with either camp, but recently I tackled her second, The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1930).


   Perhaps a better title would have been one Harry Stephen Keeler used a few years later, The Riddle of the Traveling Skull (1934), since much of the plot concerns a dead man’s sconce that keeps disappearing and reappearing in different places.

   Mitchell’s sleuth, the spectacularly ugly Mrs. Lestrange Bradley, is a professional psychoanalyst who, like her forerunner Philo Vance, eschews physical clues and favors those stemming from the psychology of the murderer.

   For some unaccountable reason the excellent sketch of the crime scene isn’t printed until page 305, so that no reader could know it was there when it might have been helpful. At the center of events is an old Druid sacrificial altar surrounded by a perfect circle of tall pine trees. “There it crouched, a loathsome toad-like thing, larger than ever in the semi-darkness.”

   Add Mitchell to the toad-haters of the world! I wonder why Mrs. Bradley, who’s often described as looking like a crocodile or a pterodactyl, is never compared to that sweet-singing and useful amphibian known to biology as bufo bufo.