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 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 these was William Ard.
William Thomas Ard was a Brooklyn boy, born on July 18, 1922. He attended Admiral Farragut Naval Academy (1936-38), took ROTC courses while a student at Dartmouth University and, after graduating in 1944, joined the Marines. An accident that severed some tendons in his left 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 on Times Square. He fell in love with a young woman named Eileen Kovara who worked at the agency and married her in 1945. The couple’s first home was in Brooklyn Heights. 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 WB’s copywriting department and the family moved to Scarsdale. Their son, William Ard Jr., was born in November 1950. “The day Bill came to the hospital to bring me home,” Eileen recalled decades later, “was the day that he found that his first novel . . . was accepted. We were able to pay the hospital bill with the advance.” Soon afterwards Ard left WB to become a full-time writer.
With a wife and two small children to support (their daughter being named Eileen after her mother as their son had been named for his dad), economic necessity reinforced Ard’s natural bent to write swiftly and much. For the rest of the 1950s he produced an average of a book every four months, the vast majority in the private eye and hardboiled genres. In 1953 the family of four moved 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.
“I never knew he had cancer,” his widow said. “He didn’t tell me. He went into the hospital to have an upper and lower GI series. When I went to see him he said nothing was wrong, that it was just nerves or overwork, and I believed him . . . After Bill died, I asked the doctor how it could have happened. He said Bill never had the tests done. He just refused to believe he had cancer.”
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 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 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 Ard’s 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 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.
Ard debuted with THE PERFECT FRAME (Mill, 1951) the first of his nine novels about Manhattan PI Timothy Dane and one of the few that shows the Spillane influence. Like Mike Hammer, Dane acts as his own narrator and bends over backwards projecting machismo, although even here a few touches of Ard’s naive lyrical romanticism seep through the Spillane-like surface. Dane is hired by a gorgeous blonde to visit a seedy Third Avenue bar, where he’s quickly beaten to a pulp but recovers in jig time to mix into a rather neat marine-insurance swindle and a pair of murders. The usual tough-guy story elements pass in review on schedule, including filthy pictures, a sinister nightclub owner and an assortment of sadistic hoods. But despite the obeisances to convention and an awkward climax it’s a readable exercise, drenched in the feel of early-Fifties Manhattan.
Dane returned early the following year as narrator and protagonist of THE DIARY (Rinehart, 1952), in which a corporate tycoon about to launch a political career hires the young shamus to recover the missing secret journal of his tempestuous teen-age daughter. The trail leads Dane to a predictable mixture of sinister nightclubs, sleazy Latino hoods, corrupt cops and pols, sex teasing and shootouts. What makes this novel a huge improvement on its predecessor is not the ingredients but Dane’s romantic naivete, his complete inability to get out of a single tight spot without help (usually a woman’s), his hopeless ineptitude at Hammerismo. Ard’s blending of familiar mean-streets material with the elements of Hollywood sex comedy growing out of Dane’s erotic mishaps with the women in the case makes this one of the more unusual PI adventures of the Fifties.
At this point Ard seemed to become unhappy with the limitations of first-person narrative, for in the third Dane novel, unaccountably entitled .38 (Rinehart, 1952), and in all of Dane’s later cases, he switched to third person storytelling, kept his protagonist offstage for long stretches, devoted much time and skill to exploring the social and psychological roots of his characters, and displayed a wizardry at cinematic crosscutting between scenes. Even though .38 takes place in Manhattan and a mob-run New Jersey vice town, the ambience is very close to that of a Western, and Dane’s personality and actions are specifically likened to those of that hero of early-Fifties TV, Hopalong Cassidy. The story begins with a math error by a missing girl’s distraught father which catapults Dane into the middle of a war among mob factions, but considering the premise there’s remarkably little bloodletting in the book, and many developments in the later chapters are indebted not to Chandler or Spillane or the screen exploits of Hoppy but to the coincidence-packed traditions of Hollywood sex comedy. Contrived in spots, marked as usual by Ard’s youthful romanticism, this is still one of Dane’s best adventures, described by Anthony Boucher as “a singularly realistic study of the mechanics and intrigues of gang rule” but rising far above sociological reportage to become a sort of locus classicus of Ard’s distinctive traits.
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 was “a fun-loving, gentle man,” his widow said of him, and “a devoted husband and father. He was a wonderful, handsome man, with a wonderful sense of humor. He was quiet and very romantic. On my birthday and other holidays like Valentine’s Day he would bring me roses. He was a very thoughtful and loving person.” His sudden death silenced one of the most distinctive voices in American popular fiction of the Fifties. 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.