And this novel makes a baker’s dozen for ex-cop turned P.I. Jim Hardman and his partner in crime fighting/shady dealings, Hump, a 270lb ex-pro ballplayer. All Kinds of Ugly is the previously unpublished climax to the Atlanta based series. The novels of Ralph Dennis went under the radar in the 70s/80s and had slipped into obscurity until publisher Lee Goldberg revived them for his Brash Books imprint. Dennis is a talented writer deserving of a new audience, he had an ear for dialogue and a nose for a story. His Hardman novels capture the city of Atlanta; it’s class divide, social structure, racial tensions and corruption – issues such as gentrification, old money and the criminal underbelly. All Kinds of Ugly was a manuscript that came with Dennis’s papers, it was titled The Polish Wife, and the central characters had different names to the rest of the series but it became apparent it was a Hardman novel so Goldberg edited the book to reflect that. In a change of pace this novel is part set in London, and although The Polish Wife makes sense the retitling, All Kinds of Ugly, gets the mood of the novel better.
Hardman novels are an adventure, the stories are intriguing, this one changes direction in unexpected and original ways several times, but most of all the femme fatale, Anna, is a complex take on the form, a fully rounded woman who makes the novel tick. Dennis wrote quickly, that energy is obvious, but so is the depth of his understanding of people. ALL kinds of Ugly is a very satisfying read. I got it’s drive from the opening paragraph:
“The Dome of the state capitol was gold-plated…gold was peeling and blowing away at the rate of hundreds of dollars a day. . .you’d think some state senator would spend his day standing downwind with his hat in his hands, trying to catch an ounce or so of it… There were other ways easier ways for a politician to fill his hat, and that’s what Senator Arwine Black was doing.”
So what is sleaze-ball politician Black up to? The state senator is on the committee to award the contract for the new highway south of Wilsonville, (30 miles of road). Two contractors are in the running; Dunlap & Brass and Coker Brothers. Coker’s lawyer hires Jim Hardman to find out if Black is being paid off by Dunlap & Brass. There are three types of bribes in this city; booze, bread and broads. For Black it’s the latter. Hardman has contacts, madam Claudia Marsh lets him know Black likes pretty young women. Hardman follows Black to a hotel and photographs him being greeted at a room door by a sexily dressed woman. Hardman is about to move in for the clincher when he sees Edward, an old friend of Marcy’s, leaving the next room, curious, he follows him to his car. As he’s thinking about going back into the hotel he sees Marcy coming out. Marcy spots Hardman and accuses him of following her. They row, why is she cheating on him?
“I need to live in the light”, and your life is dark.
So Hardman wants to know why she didn’t just leave him:
“I’m the only light you have.”
Hardman is drinking to forget when dapper Frank Butler calls over the next day. Butler has less clout these days, but he’s still a big time fixer, the black communities started voting their power and it dented Butler’s sway. Butler is calling on behalf of Harrison Gault, ex-Governor, old money (lots of it), now old and ill. His grandson has gone missing in London. The boy Harry Gault is studying at the LSE but the old man hasn’t heard from him in weeks and he’s worried. Butler’s time is too valuable so they want Hardman to take the trip to find the young man. A quick fix is arranged on his passport and Hardman is on a plane a few days later. I’m going to ignore Hardman’s dislike of real beer, (something he part remedies with a love of fine whisky later), as he wanders around the city looking for Harry. Harry has left his flat, the locals seem to think he went back to America and the bank take a bit of persuading to hand over any information but eventually Hardman discovers that a young Polish woman collects money from Harry’s account every week. Hardman follows the girl, they chat, she takes him to a wedding, it gets ugly but Hardman is no stranger to trouble. The answer to what happened to Harry Gault lies with Anna and her friend Mitka.
Eventually the story brings us back to Georgia, it shifts, and shifts again. There’s a change of mood, a tawdry murder mystery begins to change, this becomes a dark psychological drama. A web spins around the characters; old money or hired hands they are all bound up in a mess they can’t escape, it’s going to get nasty. All Kinds of Ugly is cynical, deeply suspicious of the politics of wealth and police corruption and racism. A proper page turner, Dennis doesn’t disappoint.
Tragically Ralph Dennis (1931-1988) died a broken alcoholic. His work was misjudged in the 70s, it was better than it was seen as. Dennis was a keen observer of life on the rough edges, (even those polished with cash). As is often the case, the perspective of time has revealed that Dennis influenced a lot of writers who are now firm favourites, (Joe R. Lansdale among them). He deserves to be remembered and more importantly read. Dennis puts social issues up front with his use of black characters, particularly the partnership between Hardman, the white ex-cop and Hump, the black ex-athlete. This is hardboiled, noirish, a slice of Americana. I would suggest you grab All Kinds of Ugly and take a look at Ralph Dennis. If you like All Kinds of Ugly here’s a link to my review of three other books in the Hardman series:
Paul Burke 4/4*
All Kinds of Ugly by Ralph Dennis
9781941298206 Brash Books pbk January 2020