William Ard: He Coulda Been a Contender

Pseudonyms include Jonas Ward, Ben Kerr, Thomas Wills and Mike Moran

“(Ard was) just about unmatched for driving story movement and acute economy.”
— Anthony Boucher

“… one of the most distinctive voices in the history of the private eye novel.”
— Francis M. Nevins

He coulda been a contender.

Sure, everyone knows Chandler and Hammett and Macdonald, but the hard-boiled highway’s jammed with a lot of broken heroes who never quite made it. A case in point is WILLIAM ARD.

He was one of those writers who mined the pulp fiction vein to much success and acclaim, and he had potential in spades, only to be almost completely forgotten only a few years after he was gone; a journeyman writer who burned bright and hot for a few short years.

His career lasted little more than a decade, fitting almost exactly into the ’50s. His first novel was accepted in November 1950, and he passed away in March 1960. But in those ten short years, he produced a staggering amount of work in both hardcover and paperback for both the crime and Western markets. As Jonas Ward, he cranked out five or so Westerns, and under his own name (as well as several pen names, including Ben Kerr, Thomas Wills and Mike Moran) he wrote another 30 or so crime novels, most of them hard-boiled affairs featuring tough guy private eyes, mostly from New York.

Do the math. Ten years. Thirty-five or so books. That’s three or four books a year. Whatever else he might have been doing, Ard wasn’t kidding around.

* * * * *

A former Marine, Ard graduated from Dartmouth in 1944, and worked for the Buchanan Ad Agency in New York. Her met his future wife, Eileen, there. The two were married in 1945, and Ard soon left to take a job as a publicist for Warner Bros. Early author biographies suggested he also worked, briefly, just after WWII, as a detective.

But “he always wanted to be a writer,” Eileen recalled. “He started writing short stories in college. I don’t know where they are now, but when he started with Warner Bros., he decided he would just write.”

The newlyweds moved to the New York suburbs. Ard kept writing.

In 1947, their first daughter was born. Ard kept writing.

In November 1950, a son followed. The day he went to bring Eileen and the baby home, he received notice that The Perfect Frame had been accepted for publication.

“We were able to pay the hospital bill with the advance,” Eileen said.

And Ard kept writing.

* * * * *

The Perfect Frame introduced what was to be Ard’s best-known detective, Timothy Dane. He would eventually appear in nine more novels. Partial to Seagram’s Seven and an occasional steak at Toot Shor’s if he was in the chips, Dane was a young (thirtyish) New York gumshoe with a rep for honesty.

He was tall, and knew how to handle himself. Some women find the ex-Marine “handsome as hell,” and he certainly seemed to know his way around the Big Apple hotspots of the time. No, Ard didn’t reinvent the wheel. His crime fiction was very much of its time: crooked cops, corrupt politicians, treacherous women, and murderous thugs pitted against a big-shouldered detective with a smart mouth and a Colt .45.

But Dane did have a gimmick, of sorts. It was decency. His appeal lay in the fact that deep down, he was just an average guy trying to do his job the best way he knew how—while holding on to his integrity if possible. A nice change of pace, considering that his rivals on the paperback racks were such scenery chewers as Mike Hammer and Shell Scott. Sure, Dane carried a .45, and wasn’t afraid to use it, but he showed a compassion and sensitivity rare for the time in detective fiction, recalling Ross Macdonald’s later Lew Archer novels, or perhaps Thomas B. Dewey’s Mac, who were both contemporaries of his. But Ard rarely let his heroes wallow or brood. They displayed a well-earned skepticism more than a bleak, bitter cynicism. Besides, there was no time for moping—someone was bound to come through the door with a gun at any moment. Or the phone would ring, and it would be more trouble on the line.

Ard created other private eyes as well, including Lou Largo, Johnny Stevens, Barney Glines, Tom Doran, Luke MacLane and Mike (later Danny) Fountain, and he didn’t always stick to softer end of the hard-boiled pool–plenty of his other detective characters were tough stuff indeed, and his writing has variously been compared to everyone from Richard S. Prather to James M. Cain and even Mickey Spillane.

And Ard kept writing.

* * * * *

Pumping out books the way he was, it would be silly to suggest everything Ard produced was golden. It wasn’t. Many of his books seemed rushed; almost tossed off. And maybe they were. One of his strongest supporters was Anthony Boucher, but even he couldn’t keep track of all of Ard’s pen names, dismissing one of his efforts, saying that it “read like William Ard in an off moment.”

But there’s no denying that Ard knew how to tell a story, and how to keep things moving. His books were tight and taut; lean–but rarely mean–blasts of action and character. He was able to create characters that seemed real, and to make readers care about what happened to them. The man had flow.

The young family moved to Florida in 1953, writing all the way, the wolf frequently at the door. Slowly but surely, though, he was building a solid rep. And Boucher stuck by him, praising Ard, citing him as “just about unmatched for driving story-movement and acute economy,” and by 1958, his publisher was touting him as “one of America’s most successful mystery and suspense writers.”

But Ard was more than a one-trick pony–he also wrote westerns. Really good westerns. Under the pseudonym of Jonas Ward, Ard created the affable, rambling West Texas gunfighter Tom Buchanan, who appeared in five books.

And Ard kept writing.

* * * * *

And then he stopped. Ard was only 37 when he died of cancer in 1960. He’d been diagnosed, but chose to ignore, numerous warnings from his doctors, according to his widow. Stupid.

That was the end of the Timothy Dane series, but somehow the Lou Largo series was continued, under Ard’s byline, ghostwritten by Lawrence Block and John Jakes. And the Tom Buchanan series went on even longer, an unfinished manuscript completed by sci-fi writer Robert  Silverberg, and subsequent books in the series penned by first Brian Garfield and then by William R. Cox, who stretched the series well into the eighties.

Who know? Perhaps if Ard had lived, and been able to devote a little more time to each book, he wouldn’t be one of those  writers lurking in the shadows of obscurity, sought out only by hard core fans and collectors. The good news for a long while, I guess, was that the collecting hordes hadn’t really latched onto Ard, so finding decently priced new copies wasn’t a big problem. But lately that’s been changing. Readable paperbacks I used to see going for (maybe) four or five bucks are inching up to twenty, thirty, even fifty bucks. So do yourself a favor—next time you see one of Ard’s detective novels in a used book store, a yard sale, a swap meet or a flea market–and the price isn’t too crazy–pick one up.

Read it, enjoy. And think about what might have been.


  • “Fast and sloppy though he was, Ard had the abilty to grab readers and make them care about the characters.”
    –William D’Andrea in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa



  • Babe in the Woods (1960; by Lawrence Block; Lou Largo) Buy this book
  • Buchanan on the Prod (1960; as Jonas Ward; by Robert Silverberg; Tom Buchanan)
  • Make Mine Mavis (1961; by John Jakes; Lou Largo) Buy this book
  • And So to Bed (1962; by John Jakes; Lou Largo) Buy this book
  • Give Me This Woman (1962; by John Jakes; Lou Largo) Buy this book
  • Buchanan’s Gun (1968; as Jonas Ward; by Brian Garfield; Tom Buchanan)
  • Buchanan’s War (1971; as Jonas Ward; by William R. Cox; Tom Buchanan)
  • Trap for Bucchanan (1972; as Jonas Ward; by William R. Cox; Tom Buchanan)
  • Buchanan’s Gamble (1973; as Jonas Ward; by William R. Cox; Tom Buchanan)
  • Buchanan’s Siege (1973; as Jonas Ward; by William R. Cox; Tom Buchanan)
  • Buchanan on the Run (1974; as Jonas Ward; by William R. Cox; Tom Buchanan)
  • Get Buchanan (1974; as Jonas Ward; by William R. Cox; Tom Buchanan)
  • Buchanan Calls the Shots (1975; as Jonas Ward; by William R. Cox; Tom Buchanan)
  • Buchanan’s Big Showdown (1976; as Jonas Ward; by William R. Cox; Tom Buchanan)
  • Buchanan’s Texas Treasure (1977; as Jonas Ward; by William R. Cox; Tom Buchanan)
  • Buchanan’s Stolen Railway (1978; as Jonas Ward; by William R. Cox; Tom Buchanan)
  • Buchanan’s Manhunt (1979; as Jonas Ward; by William R. Cox; Tom Buchanan)
  • Buchanan’s Range War (1980; as Jonas Ward; by William R. Cox; Tom Buchanan)
  • Buchanan’s Big Fight (1981; as Jonas Ward; by William R. Cox; Tom Buchanan)
  • Buchanan’s Black Sheep (1985; as Jonas Ward; by William R. Cox; Tom Buchanan)
  • Buchanan’s Stage line (1986; as Jonas Ward; by William R. Cox; Tom Buchanan)



    (1949–1955, NBC)
    271 30-minute episodes
    Anthology series, and the first successful filmed series on American television.
  • “The 99th Day” (May 31, 1955)
    Original story by William Ard
    Teleplay by Herbert Little Jr. and David Victor
    Directed by Frank Wisbar
    Starring Claude Akins, Richard Barron, Peter Brocco, Lauren Chapin, Lester Dorr, Arthur Franz, Glen Gordon, Virginia Grey
    A police officer is assigned to protect the family of the sole witness to a killing.


    Based on the novel The Name is Buchanan by Jonas Ward
    Screenplay by Charles Lang
    Directed by Budd Boetticher
    Starring Randolph Scott
    With Craig Stevens, Barry Kelley, Tol Avery, Peter Whitney, Manuel Rojas
    Supposedly tongue-in-cheek.


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Mystery Scene.

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