Atlanta native Ralph Dennis launched the 'Hardman' series in 1974 for Popular Library. The paperback originals ran 12 volumes, finishing with “The Buy Back Blues” in 1977. In December 2018, Lee Goldberg’s Brash Books began reprinting the Hardman classics starting with the debut. Additionally, one of the other acquisitions by Brash Books was a stand-alone heist novel by Dennis originally entitled “MacTaggart's War.”
The story behind “MacTaggart's War” and it's transformation into today's “The War Heist” is a noteworthy literary accomplishment. Originally this novel was released in hardcover in 1979. The book failed to receive commercial success or critical notice, so the novel simply came and went like many new releases do. By the time the author died in 1988, Dennis was operating an Atlanta bookstore with a file cabinet full of unpublished novels adding to his published works that failed to gain traction with the reading public.
A few years ago, New York Times bestselling author Lee Goldberg began negotiating with Dennis’ estate for the publication rights to the author’s complete body of work – published and unpublished – with the initial goal of releasing the 'Hardman' series on the Brash Books imprint. After reading “MacTaggart's War” and seeing the possibilities, Goldberg edited the novel’s composition and structure – deleting entire chapters and re-arranging others - to make the book more interesting to modern thriller readers. The end result of this posthumous collaboration is what we have today, a souped-up and streamlined new novel entitled “The War Heist.” At a whopping 407-pages, this isn't your standard 170-page Fawcett Gold Medal quickie. I can’t imagine how much padding the book contained in its original form before Goldberg culled the fat and was still left with such a weighty novel.
Sadly, the end result is a pretty bland and over-plotted narrative that failed to really excite. In all fairness, I'm not a superfan of high adventure paperbacks by Jack Higgins, Desmond Bagley or Alistair Maclean, so a lengthy novel with a WW2 backdrop felt like a heavy lift from the start. The heist aspect of the plot speaks to fans of crime-noir stories of the 1950s and 1960s, but the intricate theft is cloaked in the dense wrapper of an epic novel.
The story leverages an actual event in WW2 history – a simply remarkable mission known as Operation Salt Fish. In 1940, Winston Churchill and his cabinet felt that the United Kingdom was at real risk of being overrun by Hitler’s Germany. Fearing an imminent invasion and subsequent loss, the British conceived plans to ship their liquid assets to Canada by boat for safekeeping. The idea was that Churchill and his colleagues would continue coordinating the fight against Germany from the safety of Montreal. This continuation of the United Kingdom’s governmental continuity would be funded by 2.5 billion in gold and bonds transferred across the Atlantic through a sea of German U-Boats. Miraculously, not one ship was lost in this secret transfer of assets abroad.
Ralph Dennis utilizes this remarkable piece of history as the backdrop for a fictional heist by U.S. Army personnel attempting to rob the millions in British gold from the shipment. The robust novel covers the planning, recruitment and operation to grab the loot during the transfer from boat to train on Canadian soil. There's more than a dozen characters blurring the lines between valiant heroes and despicable villains. After so much planning – spanning chapter upon chapter – the book's final 90-pages have many of the elements of a top-notch action thriller. Nevertheless, the expansive story leading up to the climax failed to fully grasp my attention, so the final payoff left me feeling weary from the long road to Canada.
Despite my own misgivings, “The War Heist” should have much greater appeal to hardcore fans of classic high adventure thrillers. Kudos to Lee Goldberg and Brash Books for re-introducing Dennis’ forgotten novels to a new generation of readers. I sincerely hope that his body of work is discovered by a modern fan base. Moreover, I'm excited to explore the other unpublished manuscripts from Dennis currently in Goldberg’s possession, and I hope that Brash Books continues their commitment to publish the author’s complete catalog in the years to come.
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