A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Francis M. Nevins
WILLIAM ARD – Hell Is a City. Rinehart, hardcover, 1955. Popular Library #756, paperback, 1956. Ramble House, softcover, 2012.
In the early 1950s, when our political and cultural life was dominated by Senator Joe McCarthy and HUAC, and our crime fiction by the bloody exploits of Mike Hammer, a young man named William Ard joined the handful of hard-boiled writers — among them Ross Macdonald, Thomas B. Dewey, and William Campbell Gault — who carried on the legitimate private-eye tradition of Hammett and Chandler.
In Ard’s world the PI stands for personal and political decency, a clear line is drawn between dramatically justified violence and gratuitous brutality, and sex is seen as a restoration of oneself and caring for another. Anthony Boucher, the dean of mystery critics, praised Ard over and over for his “deft blend of hardness with human warmth and quiet humor,” for turning out “masterpiece(s) of compressed narration … backed with action and vigor, written with style and individuality.”
Hell Is a City, seventh of Ard’s nine novels about private eye Timothy Dane, is the most powerful and exciting of his novels. Dane is pitted against the corrupt forces of law and order in a nightmare New York where the mayor, the police commissioner, and most of the officials are allied with the mobs and determined to hang on to their power in the coming mayoral election.
When a young Latino shoots a Brooklyn vice cop who was about to rape the boy’s sister, the municipal bosses use their puppets in the news media to portray the case as the cold-blooded 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 finds himself in the classic roman noir situation: knowing the truth no one else will believe; threatened on all sides by killers with badges and without; hounded through city streets dark with something more than night.
With its sharply drawn characters, pulsating pace, and terrifying premise, this book could easily have been masterpiece, were it not for its grotesquely bad denouement, perhaps the first televised criminal trial scene in fiction, where all is set to rights in record time and in an impossibly silly manner. In a later Dane-less novel, As Bad As I Am (1959), aka Wanted: Danny Fontaine, Ard reworked the same story line to a better effect, but without the raw, nightmarish tension of Hell Is a City.
Ard was far from a model of all the literary virtues. He wrote quickly and revised too little, and his style, though readable and efficient, lacks the hauntingly quotable quality of Chandler and Ross Macdonald. His plots tend to fall part under scrutiny and he recycled certain names again and again so that his novels contain small armies of characters named Stix Larsen and Barney Glines.
But his best books — among which are The Diary (1952), .38 (1952), Cry Scandal (1956), and the paperback original Club 17 (1957), published under his pseudonym, Ben Kerr — are miracles of storytelling economy in which Ard’s special brand of tenderness is integrated with the standard elements of mean-streets fiction.
His death from cancer in 1960 at age thirty-seven silenced one of the most distinctive voices in the history of the private-eye novel.
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.