New York Times bestselling authors Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman (founders of Brash Books) have remained steadfast in their preservation of the Ralph Dennis body of work. Dennis, a South Carolina native, was born in 1931, received a masters at the University of North Carolina and produced a steady stream of fine fiction that mostly went unnoticed by mainstream readers. Passing away in 1988, Brash Books has rekindled the fire for many of Dennis' published work, including the 12 installments of the 1970s hardboiled series 'Hardman'. Along with re-editing and reprinting published novels like “Atlanta” (newly released as “The Broken Fixer”) and “MacTaggart's War (reprinted as “The War Heist”), Goldberg has discovered numerous unpublished manuscripts from the Dennis archives.
The most recent Brash Books project is a Ralph Dennis manuscript penned in the 1987-1988 time-frame. This is reflected in discouraging letters Dennis wrote to colleagues about the unsold work. “Dust in the Heart” is a different novel and avoids the pitfalls of the men's action-adventure paperbacks of the 70s. Like his other works, it is set in the southeastern U.S., but in a fictional North Carolina town rather than his go-to of Atlanta. That's not to say it doesn't possess the author's consistent ferocity. Indeed, “Dust in the Heart” is perhaps Dennis' most profoundly disturbing book due to the subject matter – a serial sex-killer preying on six year-old children. Dennis' use of sodden, rural fields, counterbalanced by a dark seedy strip club, envelops the flawed hero and the reader. It's upon this black canvas that Ralph Dennis outshines his prior efforts.
The novel's protagonist is Sheriff Wilton Drake, a former Navy sailor who found his life upended by a sniper bullet in Lebanon. The bullet not only shattered his hip but his marriage, too. After fifteen years and a lot of empty bottles, we now find Drake as the proverbial small-town badge in Edgefield, North Carolina. Drake's alcoholic desires are partnered with his obsession for Diane, a stripper working at The Blue Lagoon. The author sometimes uses these as handrails as Drake climbs through procedures, small-town politics and bureaucracy to solve a young girl's brutal rape and murder. It's here, in the rain where readers first discover Drake hunched over the girl's body. As the procedural narrative tightens, another child goes missing, pushing Drake and his department to find the killer before the next victim.
There's a number of elements that Ralph Dennis uses that may parallel his own career. As essentially his last literary work, “Dust in the Heart” has a number of references to things that are just outside the grasp. Drake's romantic feelings are within reach, but his relationship with Diane is challenging and cold. The investigation may reveal the killer, but it's too far of a reach for a conviction. Cleverly, Dennis even uses the weather, explaining that snowfall barely touches “Edgefield”, instead pocketing just west of Greensboro every winter. The author's idea of elements within sight but out of touch could be self-reflective of the author's commercial failures as a producer of popular fiction. There's even a side-story where Drake spars with an F.B.I. Agent for credit in the newspaper. These are all indicative of the author's career missteps and failings.
“Dust in the Heart” is an effective, smart police procedural starring a purposefully flawed hero. While certain genre tropes are familiar, the author's ominous prose is masterful. “Dust in the Heart” proves that even small-town America can be the most threatening. It's this cold, sinister approach that makes Ralph Dennis' final pen-stroke his most enduring legacy.
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