Who the hell was Ralph Dennis (1931-1988)? I confess I had no idea until a couple of weeks ago but I’ve now seen the light. Dennis was part of the pulp scene in the 1970s, a writer for hire. Over the years he’s slipped into obscurity, partly guilt by association with jobbing writers, partly being badly served by his original publisher who seemed to misjudge his work. I have no doubt that Dennis was a very good writer, 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 favourites (check out Joe R. Lansdale’s introduction to Atlanta Deathwatch). He deserves to be remembered and more importantly read, and that’s now possible thanks to Brash Books, who are republishing all his novels. The three that I got from Brash demonstrate the scope and inventiveness of his work. I didn’t intend to sit down and plough through all three in one weekend but I was gripped and I did.
Atlanta Deathwatch (1974), the first in the Hardman series, is a superior cop-turned-PI pulp novel (Dennis produced another five that year). Ed Gorman says Hardman was: “The most beloved obscure private eye who ever lived.” I expected hard and fast, a little bit of 70s nostalgia, but I got more than that. Atlanta Deathwatch is a decent mystery with plenty of action, it’s gritty and grounded but it’s also strong on character, the writing is a cut above and then there’s the social realism, a piercing look at racism, corruption and the underbelly of the city. I would recommend it to readers of American crime novels, there’s enough originality in Atlanta Deathwatch to please discerning hardboiled fans. So when I finished I picked up the second novel, The Broken Fixer. Again set in the city Dennis adopted as his home, Atlanta, this novel pokes around in the muddy swamp that is (was) Georgia politics. Its a vision of a changing society, not all for the better, a portrait of seedy city politics. A forerunner of The Wire in its insight into the way the city really works. Again, the characters are full fleshed and the ending is surprising, it’s a story that ropes you in. Dennis’ calm, measured tone lets the reader get deep into the mire before realise how dirty things are. This is cool noir and the setting is perfectly pitched. I had to move straight on to A Talent for Killing. Change of tack again, this time a political action thriller, the tale of a rogue assassin (an early version of the Equaliser). Kane is a lone wolf but it wasn’t always that way, his story is anything but straightforward. This is a story that links the Manchurian Candidate to the Jason Bourne movies (it’s all here). A fiction that uses CIA mind control experiments in the 1960s as the basis for a credible ‘what if?’ scenario. There’s an extra treat with this novel because Brash have found a second unpublished Kane novel and combined it with the original story, Deadman’s Game, renaming it A Talent for Killing.
These novels deserve an audience, deserve to be appreciated. There are times when Dennis’ writing touches on the inspired, he knew how to ride the zeitgeist if not get ahead of the game.
Atlanta Deathwatch (1974)
Joe R Lansdale’s introduction is fascinating on the seventies pulp scene, how Dennis was working hand to mouth, and the missed opportunities to let the world know just how good he was. Much better than the ‘sex and shoot ’em’ novels his work often sat with on the bookshop shelves. Hardman was described by his original publisher as:
‘A great new private eye for the shockproof seventies.’
Lansdale points out that Dennis writes in the first person and readers will notice this deepens character in the novel.
Snow in New York, it’s 40° after dark in Atlanta, comfortable for a stake out. Hardman has a simple job, watch the girl, Emily, daughter of white city politician, Arch Campbell, her college grades are slipping, he wants to know why. Emily is currently downing beer on her own in the Dew Drop In Cafe, none of the black patrons are trying to hit on her. Hardman, a white ex-cop, would not be welcome, he could call his partner Hump, but fifty dollars won’t go far split two ways. A car pulls up behind Hardman and the two passengers ambush him. They warn him off Emily with a couple of blows to the kidneys and the groin that leave him pissing blood. Hardman agrees to back off.
Hump is 6’6” and 270lbs, a former ball player. Hardman met him on the job at a bar where he’d laid out four guys who attacked him:
“Dirty or clean, it didn’t matter to him. Since I felt the same way the last year or so, it was a common bond of sorts.”
Raymond Hutto runs the Schooner Topless Bar. He has a side line in drugs. Hardman and Hump head to New York for a collection, a suitcase from a guy in a dirty movie house. When Hardman comes out with the case a couple of guys try to rip him off. Their mistake was ignoring the big drunk guy in the background. Hardman and Hump make it back to Atlanta fully loaded and report to Hutto.
Hardman gets an invitation he can’t refuse to see ‘the Man’, a local criminal legend. He shows Hardman a headline in the Constitution: “Tech co-ed murdered”, Emily. The Man and Emily were in love, or so he wants Hardman to find her killer:
“I asked around about you. Here and there. I’ve heard the good and the bad. I don’t mind the kind of bad I heard. It’s the kind that I understand. The good I’ve heard is the kind of good that I understand. . . I want you to poke around in it and find out the truth.”
Hardman recruits Hump and talks to detective Art Maloney but the police don’t have much. The focus is soon on Emily’s old boyfriend Eddie, but the Man and Arch Campbell and his political crew are all in the picture.
Brisk and violent but with plenty of subtle tones, this is a novel that explores corruption, race and class. Hardman had a thing for Marcy but it went bad, then she came back:
“I said that was alright with me. And then I kissed her to see if we could jump over that year.”
Simple line but it says it all.
The Broken Fixer (1975)
Originally titled Atlanta, which may seem a bit vague but this novel of corruption in the city is the story of Atlanta, it’s districts, ethnic make-up, changing environment, and poverty versus gentrification/improvement. Apparently marketed as a pot boiler this novel has real depth and insight, it’s an acute observation of the city politics. The Broken Fixer has more echoes of Chinatown or LA Confidential than Hailey’s Airport and, as I’ve said it opens up Atlanta like The Wire did in Baltimore. Dennis displays an impressive scope and great characterisation, both the good and bad guys.
Peach Tree Road, Madrid Apartments, early morning; the Shooter, 6’ tall, 19 years old, is puking up the good scotch from the night before. He signed a $1M professional basketball contract less than a year ago. He has a half memory of something bad happening and when he checks his car the left headlight is broken and the fender dented.
Officers Ben Timmons and Ralph Abse come off duty and hand Sergeant Martin their citation book. Timmons tells Martin they stopped the Shooter on Peach Tree but let him go, he promised to get a taxi home. Martin remembers minutes after this a hit and run put a wino in hospital fighting for his life. He goes straight to captain Noah French and French goes straight to David Emmett Wardlaw, team owner and property magnate. They do a deal then Wardlaw gets trusted secretary Helen Morris to call in Vince Gorman, the fixer. There’s a lot at stake for Wardlaw and this incident can’t be allowed to derail that. He bought a lot of slum land, $2.5M for 30 acres, for the Boulevard Project including a new stadium for his team. But the real boost to the project would be a city funded Convention Centre, $40m of state money.
Gorman gets the car fixed and gets back to the matter of the Convention Center. Hop Heaver and Harley Brisker are two black members of the Senator’s committee for deciding the site for the Convention Centre. There are eight men on the committee and three different opinions on best location. Judge Tate warns Wardlaw that other developer/districts are pushing hard for the centre. How far will Gorman go? This is a novel of bribery and corruption, there are people at city hall working for the good of the community but others just have their eye on the main chance. How deep into the cesspool will Wardlaw let the Boulevard project sink?
An ambitious and insightful read.
A Talent for Killing (1976)
This is the most impressive of the three novels, two for the price of one, A Talent for Killing has been re-edited and revised to include a second unpublished Kane novel.
Kane is waiting in the street for Pepper Franklin. Franklin’s wife has given up and goes to bed, the cook and the chauffeur have gone home. Kane has been watching for days so he’s familiar with the routine. Eventually Franklin turns up, when Kane approaches him he thinks it’s a mugging, he pulls out his money and chucks it at Kane with disdain. Kane says:
‘Yeah? What about her?’
Kane fires two shots into Pepper’s chest then unloads into the man’s face before vanishing back across the Georgia state line to Atlanta. Jackson Carter, certified account, has a nice office, with a two way mirror and a secretary trained to rebuff new clients, he isn’t looking for business. His latest client studies the Atlanta journal ‘robbery murder of Aiken Sportsman’. Mrs. Lovell has revenge for the death of her daughter. A backstreet abortionist screwed up but when he wanted to get May to hospital because she was bleeding out, Pepper refused, she died, he dumped the naked body on a waste tip. Mrs Lovell pays the other half of the money and they’re done. The man who caused her daughter’s death to avoid personal scandal is dead.
The Agency. Burden reports to Whistler that Kane has killed again. Blue mole has confirmed it and the bullet size and MO match. That makes five this year. Kane/Cain is actually Edward Forrest Starke, Richmond Virginia, born 28th December, 1939. Kane was recruited by Whistler, the psych. eval. suggested Kane had a fatalistic attitude likely to experience minimum damage from being a hitman. Kane is working under cover in Vietnam when a terrorist bomb kills his lover and leaves him with no memory. Ideal for the Queens Butcher Baker Plan:
‘. . . It’s like he was born about three months ago. So we create a new identity for him and we spoonfeed it to him. We give him a past that reaches back to the womb and up to now. What is important about this past is we leave the agency out of it. We don’t exist for him. He never worked for us.’
Sound familiar? The cover carries the tag: ‘Long before Jason Bourne, there was Kane.’
Kane believes he was a soldier, injured in Vietnam, from New York he found his way to Atlanta and back to killing. He has a new job; the sister of Barton Riker, killed by the Dixie mafia, wants revenge. Barton may have been a bad boy, a gambler, but didn’t deserve to die. Kane heads to Ansonville to find the killers. He makes a new friend in Karen but some of the locals don’t like his presence and it isn’t long before the violence starts. If Kane is to identify the killers he needs to get close to Franco and Eddie and find out more about the Inner Circle.
Meanwhile, the Agency is reconsidering the license to roam Kane has, they’ve been keeping an eye on him but now they send Bull Ranklin to find him, to assess the situation. There are some unexpected twists in this story which rolls seamlessly into a second story.
A really exhilarating action thriller that springs a couple of surprises, an original and likeable protagonist, even if he is a hitman.
The attitudes of the time are evident in these books. The most offensive racist terms are sparingly used and have a point in the story, women are often described as trim, which is unpleasant but true to character. While some women clearly are appendages to the male characters there are several crucial, well rounded female characters in these stories. Dennis is clearly putting 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. It also struck me he was making a point about the number of murders in Atlanta that went unsolved at that time.
Hardboiled, noir, Americana I would suggest you grab a book and take a look at Ralph Dennis.
Paul Burke 4/4
Brash Books 9781732065666 pbk Aug 2018
The Broken Fixer
Brash Books 9781941298190 pbk Aug 2019
A Talent for Killing
Brash Books 9781732422636 pbk Aug 2019