It was the sort of idea that should have vanished with the sunrise, and the onset of sobriety.” That tantalizing line could have come from the opening of one of the more than 100 books published by Hard Case Crime, as a rueful narrator reflects on the offhand thoughts that led to trouble. In fact, it’s how Hard Case Crime cofounder Charles Ardai, an Edgar Award–winning writer himself, described the circumstances of the imprint’s origins.

Ardai told PW that when he arranged to get together for drinks in 2001 with novelist and graphic designer Max Phillips, an old friend, he didn’t imagine where their casual conversation about the books they’d relished growing up would lead. Their discussions of the paperback crime novels they remembered vividly from Gold Medal or Popular Library, by authors such as John D. MacDonald, got more spirited, figuratively and literally, as the evening wore on and the bar tab grew. They reminisced about pocket-size books with “luscious, painted covers and a tough, atmospheric prose style.” After the friends wondered why no one published those sort of books anymore, one of them mused that they should collaborate to start a new publishing imprint to fill the void.

The rest is genre publishing history. After a few years of getting the business organized, Ardai and Phillips released the first Hard Case Crime titles in 2004. And though some elements of the books they’d loved have fallen by the wayside (such as the pocket format, due to the prohibitive economics of distributing mass market paperbacks), their spirit remains.

“In terms of the look and feel and storytelling style, we haven’t deviated one iota,” Ardai said. “We still favor lean storytelling, with most of our books clocking in at 256 pages or less, featuring intense, focused stories. No one needs to know what Sam Spade’s childhood was like—just get on with the story we’ve come to read.”

Hard Case Crime’s 2021 list is highlighted by the biggest name on its roster—Stephen King. In March, the publisher will release King’s Later, complete with the tagline, “Only the dead have no secrets.” PW’s review noted that “no good deed goes unpunished in this gruesome yet mesmerizing paranormal coming-of-age story.” Later is King’s third book for Hard Case Crime, preceded by 2005’s The Colorado Kid and 2013’s Joyland.

How did Hard Case Crime land the über-bestselling King in its early days, when it had only published a dozen titles? Ardai’s account is pleasantly improbable. “We knew that one of the challenges we faced was getting readers to pick up books by writers whose names they didn’t already know,” Ardai said, “whether that was old-time pulp writers whose works we were rescuing from obscurity or new writers we might discover.” He reasoned that readers would give the books a closer look if they also saw a name they knew and respected. He knew from interviews that King was a fan of the old-style paperbacks and hoped he could get King to write a blurb.

Utilizing the investigative skills of his own fictional PI, John Blake, Ardai found the name and address of King’s accountant and dropped off a package with samples of what Hard Case Crime’s books would look like, and who its authors would be. He didn’t expect anything to come from the effort.

Months passed. Then the phone rang. It was King’s agent, who told Ardai that King didn’t want to write a blurb, because he wanted to write a book instead. King’s gesture, which Ardai dubbed as an act of “transcendent generosity,” put Hard Case Crime on the map.

This year also brings other notable titles, including Donald Westlake’s Castle in the Air (Mar.); two books from the indefatigable Max Allan Collins, Two for the Money (Apr.) and Double Down (May); a trade paperback edition of Killer Come Back to Me: The Crime Stories of Ray Bradbury (Aug.); and Five Decembers (Oct.), written by James Kestrel (a pseudonym), featuring a Honolulu police detective probing a grisly murder on the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Collins said writing for Hard Case Crime is attractive because “they go their own way and are motivated by a love for the noir genre, taking risks with new talent and respect older talent. Charles Ardai encourages me to write what I want to write. I’m at a point in my career and, frankly, at an age where being able to write what I want means more than financial considerations, an approach that can pay off better than a more market-driven, cynical one.”

Ardai plans to continue with what has worked. “The fact that we’re still at it two decades later is a testimony to the widespread appeal and the staying power of this sort of crime fiction,” he said. “It’s exciting, it’s slightly disreputable, it’ll take you for a ride and show you a good time, and best of all, no hangover! I can’t imagine a way I’d rather have spent the past 20 years of my life. If my tombstone eventually has that gun-and-crown logo carved on it, I’d consider myself a lucky man.”