While writing this, I'm about halfway through Gilbert Ralston's last 'Dakota' novel, “Chain Reaction”, and thinking that I want to be buried with these five novels. They are just that damn good (even the lukewarm third entry), but then I remember I'm being cremated and I can't bear the thought of these magnificent works perishing by fire. I'm not a paid spokesman on behalf of the Ralston family nor do I attain any monetary reward for my pulpit preaching. I'm here as a casual reader and stating this 'Dakota' series is absolutely a mandatory read. It should be produced digitally and placed into some sort of archive for future generations to explore.
The amazing aspect of this series is that the five books really make up one long case file. It puts you, the reader, in the dangerous (and coveted) spot of being the scene sleuth piecing it all together. Confused? Let me elaborate.
The first book, “Dakota Warpath”, had a sweeping main narrative of Shoshone detective Dakota rutting out an evil corrupt land baron. But, in that book Ralston sets up a cast of characters that play major and minor roles throughout the series. Further, he places little tidbits here and there that build to enormous plots later. For instance, the series debut has a three-page side-story that had Dakota visiting a disabled genius named Henry Bray. In that book, Henry wants to hire Dakota to protect him from his brother Jack, who he thinks is out to murder him. Dakota, thinking the man has dementia, accepts the deal but gives the money back and warns Jack that his brother is crazy. In book three, “Cat Trap”, the author provides one intriguing sentence by mentioning that Jack Bray has been shot and killed. The reader is left pondering those early scenes in book one, but they don't really come to fruition until this book, where that story is the complex plot. That's just the tip of the iceberg. “Cat Trap” also introduced us to a crooked casino owner named Larry Kinter, who has major roles in books four and five along with a paid killer named Guy Marten, who appears as early as book two. Oh what webs we weave.
“Murderer's Money” is the fourth series entry, written by Gilbert Ralston and released in 1975 by powerhouse publisher Pinnacle. It's probably the best and most epic of the books, putting Dakota in the hot seat in, around and on top of the Sierras, but placing the rousing finale on the mean streets of Oakland. As stated earlier, the premise is that Jack Bray has been found shot to death in his office and the chief suspect is the jailed brother, Henry Bray. Henry is a wheelchair bound genius that holds an infinite number of patents and has immense wealth. Dakota is hired to clear Henry's name and find Jack's killer. The problem? Henry was the only visitor Jack had that night. Henry's firearm was found at the scene. Henry's chair blanket shows two holes where the shots were fired from. Two witnesses say they saw Henry enter and leave Jack's office. Jack is the reason Henry is in a wheelchair for life. The odds are overwhelming that Henry is the shooter. Dakota doesn't think so.
But, these books never rely on a simple plot. This one moves at a fast pace, eventually involving a dead junkie named Carl Self, a suspicious Bray daughter named Melissa and money found at the scene that is directly connected to the Gerber Baby ransom-murder. It's a dense, calculating read but incredibly enjoyable. Just when you think you've got it figured out, another wild scenario takes place. As the action moves to Oakland, gangland violence and hired protection rackets become players, aligning Dakota with guys he would otherwise kill. Did I mention there's a middle stretch that has Dakota and Melissa Bray crash landing on top of the snowy Sierras? That side-story is captivating and simply...breathtaking.
Don't get too caught up with the expansive narrative. It's a fun read clocking in at the typical 180-pages that the genre demands. But, prior knowledge of the three previous books is a prerequisite. Without it, events in this book won't have such an impact. The series finale, book five's “Chain Reaction”, continues the story presented here and transforms Dakota into a furious fighting machine, progressively altering the character to match his violent lifestyle.
'Dakota' is simply the best of the best.